Com­bat­ing the sui­cide epi­demic

The sui­cide rate is on the rise, in­clud­ing veter­ans suf­fer­ing from post-trau­matic stress

The Washington Times Daily - - OPINION - By David W. Walker

The re­cent re­port from the Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion (CDC) that our na­tion is in the throes of a mas­sive sui­cide epi­demic did not come as a sur­prise to those of us who work with trou­bled veter­ans. We deal with it every day. We spend count­less hours lis­ten­ing to un­speak­able pain among those re­turn­ing from the bat­tle­fields, striv­ing to coun­sel them through their dark­ness and con­sol­ing wid­ows when our ef­forts are in­suf­fi­cient — all the time won­der­ing if we had been more articulate, more sen­si­tive, more wise, per­haps we could have al­tered the out­comes.

The sui­cides of Kate Spade and An­thony Bour­dain touched off a me­dia frenzy be­cause they were celebri­ties who en­joyed pro­fes­sional suc­cess and eco­nomic se­cu­rity. It seems like they had it all. We as­sume sui­cide to be as­so­ci­ated with great dis­tress. Why would those suc­cess­ful lu­mi­nar­ies take their own lives?

For the peo­ple we work with, in­abil­ity to func­tion in the civil­ian econ­omy and earn a liv­ing are usu­ally the ele­phants in the room — or at least that is the chal­lenge most wounded veter­ans are pre­oc­cu­pied with. They very much want to have pro­duc­tive lives and pro­vide for their fam­i­lies, but many of them sim­ply can­not. They are im­paired not so much by physical in­juries, though many have lost limbs or sight, as by post-trau­matic stress (PTS) that is not vis­i­ble to the naked eye Their in­abil­ity to func­tion in civil­ian life fos­ters frus­tra­tion and des­per­a­tion which can lead to sui­cide.

There is a wide­spread mis­con­cep­tion that PTS is sim­ply a mat­ter of emo­tional dis­tress, and with­out ques­tion that is part of it. But there is a grow­ing body of med­i­cal ev­i­dence that prox­im­ity to vi­o­lent ex­plo­sions dis­rupts the chem­i­cal com­po­si­tion of the hu­man brain. PTS vic­tims are wrestling with in­ter­nal stresses they can nei­ther un­der­stand nor con­trol. They seek re­lief in al­co­hol and drugs which serve pri­mar­ily to ag­gra­vate their af­flic­tion and do not ad­dress the root causes of their dis­tress.

The grow­ing pop­u­la­tion of wounded veter­ans is one well­spring of the grow­ing sui­cide phe­nom­e­non. The CDC re­ports that sui­cide rates are on the up­swing na­tion­wide. Nearly 45,000 peo­ple com­mit­ted sui­cide in 2016 — more than twice the num­ber of homi­cides. Among peo­ple aged 15-34, sui­cide was the sec­ond lead­ing cause of death that year, and veter­ans com­prise a sig­nif­i­cant por­tion of that pop­u­la­tion. Though they rep­re­sent only about 8.5 per­cent of the over­all pop­u­la­tion, they

make up about 18 per­cent of sui­cides, ac­cord­ing to the CDC.

Sui­cide is most preva­lent among white men. Though sui­cide rates among women are ris­ing sharply, seven men com­mit­ted sui­cide in 2016 for every two women. White men kill them­selves at nearly three times the rates for blacks, His­pan­ics and Asians. The sui­cide rate in ru­ral coun­ties is nearly 78 per­cent higher than in big cities, which at least in part re­flects the ru­ral ori­gins of most peo­ple in the mil­i­tary.

“The mass of men lead lives of quiet des­per­a­tion,” wrote Henry David Thoreau more than a cen­tury ago, and that was well be­fore the anx­i­eties and alien­ation of the dig­i­tal world we live in. Hu­man be­ings are so­cial crea­tures. To the ex­tent the dig­i­tal rev­o­lu­tion serves to iso­late peo­ple from hu­man in­ter­ac­tion — just look around you at all the peo­ple en­grossed in their elec­tronic de­vices, obliv­i­ous to other peo­ple — it con­trib­utes to the alien­ation that can foster sui­cide.

I be­lieve the rash of sui­cides will con­tinue and grow. To con­tend with it, we need to ad­dress the causes. These in­clude de­pres­sion that re­quires pro­fes­sional attention, the stan­dard litany of life’s prob­lems — eco­nomic hard­ship, mar­i­tal dis­cord, lost love, pro­fes­sional set­backs, lone­li­ness — that all of us must con­tend with at one time or an­other; and the loss of hope such as of­ten ac­com­pa­nies terminal ill­ness that things will get bet­ter. What­ever the source, every­one needs some­one to talk to when trou­ble comes.

In my own work, I look for op­por­tu­ni­ties to em­pha­size re­li­gious faith, my be­lief that we are all here for a rea­son and that our lives mat­ter. I find my­self lean­ing on faith in­creas­ingly as I lend a sym­pa­thetic ear to wounded veter­ans in dis­tress. “I am in des­per­ate need of some ad­vice or as­sis­tance, just some­one to lis­ten,” wrote one such fel­low. He went on to de­tail a series of grind­ing set­backs that I be­lieve would dis­may any­one: His wife skipped town with the fam­ily money, leav­ing him with bills he can­not pay; the gas and wa­ter are about to be cut off; he can’t feed his kids or even the dog that helps him get around. This is a fel­low who an­swered his coun­try’s call to duty and was se­verely in­jured on our be­half. He needed tem­po­rary fi­nan­cial help, which I was able to pro­vide.

But mainly he needed some­one to talk to. We all do. The Na­tional Sui­cide Pre­ven­tion Line 1-800-273-8255 is there in recog­ni­tion of this ba­sic hu­man need. We all need to know that our lives mat­ter, that other peo­ple care, and that we are not alone. Those of us who have our bur­dens in hand must reach out to those less for­tu­nate. It’s up to you and me. This isn’t rocket sci­ence. Let’s turn off the TV, put away the phone and pull up a chair and lis­ten.

David W. Walker is pres­i­dent and CEO of the Coali­tion to Sa­lute Amer­ica’s He­roes.

IL­LUS­TRA­TION BY GREG GROESCH

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