Despite widespread awareness campaigns, the suicide rate among active duty service members and military veterans continues to grow. In 2018, Army soldiers and Marines took their own lives at 150 percent the rate of sailors and airman. Last year the rate among Marines hit a 10-year high. The problem is even trickling down to younger cadets at U.S. military academies as the stress and pressure of military life — and the aftermath — wreak havoc on the mental, physical and neurological health of America’s bravest individuals.
While social media push-up challenges and podcasts can help to bring awareness to the problem, even our own Defense Department leadership admits they don’t have the answer to preventing future suicides, despite claiming to have the means and resources to get ahead of it.
The truth is, the way we currently handle mental health awareness and treatment among active duty and veterans is too slow, too antiquated, and too cumbersome to make a significant difference.
We wait until there’s a problem and expect personnel to speak up and ask for help.
Those who do are forced into a bureaucratic nightmare, which can lead to long wait times to get an appointment with a mental health provider. Even then, the treatment plan often includes medication: anti-depressants, sleep aids and pain pills, all of which lead to substance use disorders, addiction, and an alarming number of intentional and unintentional suicides by drug and alcohol overdose.
For those in crisis who don’t have months or even weeks to wait, that unfortunate outcome is accelerated.
In order to stem the tide of service member suicide we must change the way we approach mental health awareness and treatment among our active duty and veteran soldiers. Here’s how:
- Modernize access to care. While every other industry has transitioned to remote work, the medical community has been slow to adopt telemedicine. But the COVID-19 crisis has forced a massive shift to happen practically overnight, which means it is possible when the need is urgent. Most of us would agree there’s no greater urgency than preventing the tragic deaths of American heroes, which is why we must make modern telehealth access to mental health and addiction treatment resources available to soldiers and veterans who need it — at home or overseas.
- Intervene early. Waiting for soldiers and veterans to come forward for help after deployment is like strapping on a parachute after you’ve already jumped from the plane. These brave men and women make tremendous sacrifices in unspeakable conditions under extreme duress — of course they’re going to have PTSD, high anxiety, depression, and difficulty coping. Instead of trying to undo the damage, what if we worked to prevent it in the first place? By embedding mental health professionals in the field, alongside service members, we can give them immediate access to the resources and help they need to de-escalate the situation before it spirals out of control.
- Explore stem cell treatments for chronic pain. In addition to mental wounds, many physical wounds don’t fully heal, which contributes directly to lack of sleep and substance use disorder. I was severely injured during hand-to-hand combat in Sadr City, Iraq, and suffered from chronic pain. I’d drink to dull the pain, become drowsy and maybe get an hour of sleep until my hands went numb from the nerve damage. Then I’d be awake again. I finally underwent stem cell injections and a stem cell infusion and experienced a complete metamorphosis. My pain level went from a 7-8 to 1-2, and I could finally get the sleep I so desperately needed. We often underestimate the importance of sleep, but helping veterans get quality rest is crucial to healing, physically and mentally. Making modern pain treatments a priority could give many the relief they need to finally get some shut eye and get back to normal.
- Use brain mapping to provide a feedback. One of the biggest reasons personnel don’t seek mental health aid is because the results are slow and hard to see. When you have an infection, you take antibiotics and feel better. But with therapy, many feel like it’s a waste of time because there’s no feedback loop. Brain imaging/mapping techniques can provide that quantifiable feedback to incentivize treatment. Through this technique, I saw my own brain transform from one fraught with agitation, adrenaline and anger, to one that was calm and functioning normally. By demonstrating these empirical changes that show the brain is healing, we can encourage greater participation in therapy.
- Explore new PTSD therapies. Promising new medical therapies for PTSD are delivering great results. Nutritional changes, dietary supplements like magnesium and vitamin D, and testosterone replacement can dramatically improve depression, energy levels and frame of mind. Stellate ganglion block, in which a local anesthetic is injected into nerves within the neck that regulate the body’s “fight or flight” response, has shown to be effective, along with ketamine drip therapy as a rapid treatment for PTSD symptoms. While many of these are in early stages of development and availability is limited, we owe it to our military service members and veterans to continue exploring innovative treatments to solve their life-threatening problems.
- Provide assimilation assistance. Assimilating into civilian society is the most difficult part of life after service. Not only are veterans carrying the heavy burden of PTSD and chronic pain, the military does a very poor job of discharging personnel and preparing them for the transition. I’ve personally known numerous highly skilled, senior-level officers who could lead teams in high-intensity roles and write elaborate battle plans but could not write a basic resume. There are several great programs, like Hire a Hero and Boots to Suits, but many don’t take advantage of them or know they exist. Discharge leaves many in a state of limbo, lacking purpose and too much time on their hands — which unfortunately too often gets filled with drinking and drug use. By teaching some basic assimilation skills, we can smooth the transition to civilian life and help our heroes go on to become healthy, productive veterans.
- Eliminate the stigma. Perhaps the biggest problem in how we deal with mental health in the military is the fact that we often don’t deal with it at all. Speaking up about these issues is not always viewed favorably. Take the case of Ryan Larkin, a highly decorated Navy SEAL with four combat tours under his belt who took his own life at just 29. Ryan had repeatedly made statements about the system being broken and that he himself was broken, but no one was listening. He was flat-out ignored, along with an untold number of other brave men and women.
We must start listening and acting with real, practical solutions, otherwise the respect and reverence with which we claim to view our military personnel and veterans is nothing more than lip service.
They deserve treatments and solutions worthy of their service, honor and sacrifice to help them live a happy and healthy life in the country they’ve risked so much to defend.
Dan Cerrillo, a decorated Navy SEAL veteran and Board Member for the Navy SEALs Fund, is chief of staff for American Addiction Centers.