Too many of our veterans remain at risk

Now that another Veterans Day has come and gone, we need to remember that veterans and military service members need our support all year round. In addition to many visible wounds, millions of our military personnel and returning veterans are also struggling with “invisible” wounds caused by mental disorders such as depression and post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injury. These invisible wounds are accompanied by an alarmingly high rate of suicide among service members and veterans.

Committed, competent partners inside and outside of government are needed to solve this, and we will leave the policy questions and those decisions to our spouses and other members of the House and Senate. But for the rest of us, we can help our soldiers and returning veterans, too. 

First, we can learn the facts about suicide. Suicide has increased among service members, and 20 percent of all suicide deaths are among our veterans. More than ever before, the departments of Defense and Veterans’ Affairs are taking steps to prevent suicide by making the mental health of service members and veterans a priority, and by developing new services and policies that encourage the military to seek help and reduce the stigma of mental health treatment. This is a very encouraging step forward. 

Research has shown that 90 percent of those who commit suicide have a diagnosable mental disorder at the time of their death, most often depression, PTSD and anxiety, often accompanied by alcohol or drug abuse. These underlying causes can be treated effectively but frequently go unrecognized, or untreated. Yet, treatment is available, and treatment saves lives.

Second, we must learn to recognize suicide risk. Risk factors include major depression, post-traumatic stress, alcohol and drug abuse and/or dependence, bipolar disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, prior suicide attempts and traumatic brain injury. Symptoms of depression include a change in a person’s normal mood or behavior; loss of interest or pleasure in activities that were previously enjoyed; changes in sleeping patterns, appetite or weight; and feelings of hopelessness, worthlessness, self-reproach or excessive or inappropriate guilt. Imminent warning signs of suicide include threatening to hurt or kill oneself; talking or writing about death, dying or suicide; looking for ways to kill oneself; and making plans or preparations for suicide. 

Interventions that work to prevent suicide include talking openly about problems with a physician, counselor or chaplain; obtaining effective clinical care for mental and physical health and/or substance abuse; restricting access to lethal means of suicide; and making and maintaining connections to family and community support.

This is where we all come in. In each of our communities we can help reverse the trend of increasing suicides. We can encourage awareness of the causes and warning signs of suicide in those organizations that are part of our daily lives: our religious institutions, schools, the American Legion or VFW Hall and, if there is one nearby, a military base, veterans’ hospital or other medical facility. We can reach out to returning service members, their families or a local veterans group and talk with returning soldiers about the challenges they are facing, and offer to connect or accompany them to appropriate employment, health or mental health services. 

We can all help save lives.

Barrasso, Bonito, Gibson and Connolly are co-chairmen of Congressional Spouses for Suicide Prevention and Education.