An estimated 22 veterans commit suicide a day, a shocking and disturbing number. Even more alarming, this statistic does not include active-duty members, 75 of which have committed suicide between January and March of this year according to the Pentagon's quarterly Suicide Event Report.
Fortunately, members of our government have recognized this pandemic and are introducing legislation designed to combat military suicide. The Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention Bill will do a number of things to improve the VA and Pentagon's suicide prevention programs, as well as make it easier for the VA to recruit more quality psychiatrists.
This bill needs to be passed, but it will not be enough. I believe that members of the military community with a history of combat experience and a willingness to help their fellow soldiers can make a huge difference.
In January 2014, after seven years of service, I left Army Special Forces and now serve in the National Guard. I left active duty not because I didn't love my job as a Green Beret, but because I noticed that many of the men I served with — my teammates — were battling PTSD and depression (all-too-common side effects of multiple combat deployments).
Each man dealt with it in his own way. Some turned to vices, some turned to violence, but most of them kept their thoughts and feelings to themselves. I'll never forget the night one of my teammates, whom I love as a brother, shared with me through glassy eyes and wavering voice how he can't go to sleep at night unless thoroughly intoxicated. He told me, "When I lie down at night I can't stop seeing their faces."
It was incredibly difficult for a Type A personality like him to share his intimate feelings, yet I noticed a subtle relief in his eyes behind the pain when he did. I could feel his full weight as I comforted him with an embrace. He had been suppressing and denying that pain for years. Finally talking about it to a friend with a sympathetic ear was a huge step in his healing process.
It was after multiple similar experiences with my teammates that I realized they felt comfortable letting their guard down and sharing their pain with me because they knew I understood. Leaving the Army was difficult, but I was drawn to the idea that I could help them and soldiers like them by pursuing a career in mental health myself. I truly feel the key to providing military members much needed relief from their PTSD and depression symptoms is providing them access to more mental health professionals with combat experience like them.
In a recent interview, psychologist and veteran Dr. Eric Proescher gave his explanation as to why veterans might not actively seek treatment:
"Our newer veterans tend to be 'reluctant' help seekers. It takes time for problems to settle in and things to go wrong. As a result, we often see veterans during crises then they disappear. I also think the traditional masculine military values such as independence, self-reliance, and emotional control also work against the veteran's willingness to ask for help."
The veterans Dr. Proescher is describing may be less reluctant to seek help if they knew they would be seen by a mental health professional who has a shared background and experience. That is why, if you are transitioning out of the military or you are out and thinking about going back to school, I urge you to consider a career in mental health. At first glance it may seem like a daunting task (in some cases it can take up to eight years to earn a Ph.D. in Psychology), however there are many other options to becoming a counselor, such as completing a two year master's degree in counseling.
If you are considering attending college, the GI Bill is an incredible resource for financing your education. And if you are a disabled veteran, a lesser-known option is Vocational Rehabilitation. In most cases Voc Rehab provides a much more comprehensive financial package than the GI Bill. And if the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention Bill passes, the VA will have the ability to cover up to $120,000 a year in student loan repayments to students who go on to become psychiatrists who commit to VA service.
We servicemen and women come from diverse backgrounds and choose to serve our county for myriad reasons. But regardless of who we were before or why we decided to stand up for our country, all of us know by now that having each other's backs is essential to staying safe. I don't believe that ends when you take the uniform off. Every day, 22 of our brothers and sisters succumb to the invisible wounds they received during their service. What will you do to show tomorrow's 22 you still have their back?
[Editor's note: Staff Sgt. Ryan Ramsey, now a member of the National Guard, has served nine years, seven with 19th Special Forces Group as a SF engineer sergeant. He deployed to Afghanistan with 1st Special Forces Group as a senior engineer sergeant. He is now a first year student studying psychology at Columbia University.]