Invisible wounds of war: Mental health and veterans
All of us who have been in combat have memories we would like to forget. I don’t remember every single day of my service in Vietnam, but images from the times when I might have died (but by pure chance didn’t) are in permanent residence in my memory. Seeing another Marine blown to pieces, literally, is an image I will carry to my deathbed.
These memories we carry—and the damage they inflict on our mental health—are the invisible wounds of war.
For many veterans returning home to civilian life, the battle is far from over. From post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to substance abuse and depression, our nation needs to do more to make sure these brave men and women are not left behind.
As president and CEO of U.S.VETS, the largest veteran-specific nonprofit housing and service provider in the country, I see it as our mission to help with the successful transition of military veterans and their families through the provision of housing, counseling, career development, and comprehensive support.
Last year, U.S.VETS provided more than 250,000 mental health assessments and counseling sessions. Additionally, as part of our homelessness prevention effort, U.S.VETS provides free mental health services to Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom veterans and their families through Outside the Wire (OTW).
But no one agency can do this job alone. This is why U.S.VETS is grateful for the support of such institutions as The Chicago School of Professional Psychology and their hosting of such events as the symposium on homeless veterans last year.
Here are what I see as the three most urgent issues facing our veterans today:
1. Casualties by suicide
Recently, I participated in a roundtable discussion sponsored by the VA Central Office, where we discussed the results of a study by the VA Office of Suicide Prevention.
The results were heartbreaking.
Twenty veterans die from suicide each day. Only 6 of the 20 are users of VA services.
Since 2001, the rate of suicide among female veterans has increased 85.2 percent, and 66 percent of those suicides were the result of firearms.
Dig even deeper into the statistics and the picture becomes even more grim. For every person who dies by suicide, there are nearly 60 who survived a suicide attempt, and approximately 278 who have experienced serious thoughts about killing themselves. It’s overwhelming.
As a result, the VA is now fully admitting they can’t handle the problem alone, and have reached out to the wider community. Here is where participation of institutions such as The Chicago School can make all the difference.
2. No place to call home
Every soldier knows that the one thing that keeps you going through combat is knowing it will end, and you will get to go home. But nearly 40,000 veterans are homeless on any given night.
When I joined a group of experts at The Chicago School 2015 symposium, the questions we all pondered was, “What does the end of veterans’ homelessness look like?” Panel discussions with TCSPP President Michele Nealon, Psy.D. focused on charting a route to help in their transition to a self-sufficient lifestyle by helping them cope with the challenges of life after military service.
“As an institution and a designated Military Friendly university, we are reaching out to veterans and family members in Los Angeles to discuss solutions to the problems many of them face, especially combat veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan, as they reintegrate back into society,” Dr. Nealon told the group. “Problems that have become all too common yet can be devastating.”
She was right. Every veteran in this country deserves a place to live. They also deserve a chance to move forward from the memories of war.
3. A new kind of battle
For many veterans, the battle to rebuild their lives begins the minute they are discharged. And the statistics are not pretty.
1.5 million veterans live in poverty. 300,000 veterans of Iran and Afghanistan are returning home with PTSD or traumatic brain injuries. On top of that, many are also dealing with substance abuse, depression, poor family relationships, and just a feeling of being disconnected from the world they left behind.
As Marines, we are highly trained to protect our fellows, and to rely on them. The whole was greater than the sum of the individuals. What can we do, then, when the unit disbands? When combat veterans are dispersed across the country, often rapidly losing touch with the friendships and camaraderie they knew while deployed? The isolation veterans feel once they have left their units and returned to their homes is as dangerous as any firefight.
If we can magnify the support group model to encompass an entire community, we have a chance. But the question remains: What is the best way to let a veteran, alone in his or her room, know that there are people who care about his or her well-being, who have their back in this time of need.
At U.S.VETS’ residential sites, we create a sense of community by connecting veterans with other veterans to help through the darkest times. This peer support model is more powerful than anything we can do as social workers.
U.S.VETS is counting on more partnerships with institutions and agencies such as The Chicago School to expand this peer support model, reach out to veterans in the community and ensure that the men and women who gave their lives to defend this country have a life to come back to—one that is deserving of the sacrifice they have made. Let’s not let them down.
Stephen Peck, M.S.W.
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