The terms “drink water and drive on” or “suck it up, buttercup” were commonly heard during my days on active duty. Especially as a woman, we dare not show emotions unless we wanted to be told we did not belong there. We were given 800mg of Ibuprofen to cure everything and we were expected to push forward. This created an atmosphere of bottling up emotions, looking for answers in a bottle and suffering families that take the brunt of the frustration when a soldier does not know how to cope with their feelings. No matter your political beliefs, we can all agree that our veterans need their mental health needs to be taken seriously.
A soldier has to be a lean, mean fighting machine. A soldier must be willing to give their life in defense of what is just and ethical. Yet, a soldier should not lose their life once they are home. Being strong does not mean being numb. Let us look at the facts regarding U.S military veterans that commit suicide.
According to a study published in 2016, veterans are at a 21 percent higher risk of suicide than civilians. Female veterans show a suicide rate increase of 85 percent in comparison to the 32 percent increase for civilian women. The Department of Veterans Affairs states, “roughly 20 veterans a day commit suicide nationwide” (Military Times, 2016).
20 veterans a day. This means approximately 7,300 veterans die every year from suicide, often related to post traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. How many of our veterans do not seek treatment because they fear the stigma of mental health disorders? How many veterans bottle up their pain because they need to “drink water and drive on?” Perhaps they don’t even realize that what is happening to them is real and it is treatable.
I have heard veterans say that PTSD and depression did not exist in their day. They are trying to claim we are now weaker and perpetuating the negative stigma around mental health. However, statistics show 65 percent of our veterans committing suicide are over the age of 50 (Military Times, 2016). PTSD is not the only factor in veteran suicide, but it is a prevalent factor which we must address as a country.
What can we do? The first step in solving many problems is knowledge and understanding. Too many people do not understand PTSD and simply write it off as fake or something that will pass. PTSD is a severe anxiety disorder that typically develops after some type of psychological trauma. What is traumatic to one person may not be traumatic to another; this is unique to each person.
Triggers act as alarm signals to the brain and cause a person to not only remember traumatic memories, but they experience the same emotions from that traumatic memory. Imagine your most terrifying memory and now imagine if you felt you were re-experiencing it as if you were back in that moment.
The individual often experiences insomnia and when they do sleep, they have terrible nightmares that seem all too real. They may also have phobias such as a deep seeded fear of swimming because they witnessed someone die near a lake. Anger, depression, paranoia and a sense of hopelessness wrap around all of this. These symptoms may persist for months or even years and impair the veteran’s ability to function in day to day life.
PTSD is treatable and our veterans do show improvements when seeking out help. It is crucial that we educate the community on PTSD and provide accessibility to treatment for veterans as well as their families. If you are a veteran or family member experiencing emotional distress, please do not hesitate to contact the Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 or contact your local emergency department.