Veterans at Higher Risk for Suicide & the Substance Abuse Connection
Posted Dec 12 2010 3:43pm
by Lisa Frederiksen
KQED’s, The California Report’s, December 10 story, “Veterans at Higher Risk for Suicide,” is a “must listen” for citizens of all countries. It talks about the impacts of war on the mental health of our veterans, and not just the young veterans of recent wars, but veterans over 50 and veterans of WWII. And, while this report is specifically about California’s veterans, the mental health impacts of war — anxiety, depression, PTSD — know no boundaries. Here are just a couple of the program’s highlights:
Allison St. John of KPBS in San Diego (shares the story) “…vets continue to be at higher risk for suicide than others without military service — even decades after their combat experience is over….” “…World War II Vets have the highest suicide rate of all; more than 4 times that of civilians in their generation….”
Erin Glance (Bay Citizen reporter who uncovered the story) “…people who went through WWII suffer the same kind of trauma that soldiers did in VietNam and Iraq and Afghanistan, but it wasn’t really permissible to talk about it back then….”
So why am I calling out this story on a blog about substance abuse and addiction?
Mental illness is one of the five key risk factors for developing a substance abuse problem. (The other four are social environment, genetics, childhood trauma and early use.) Many vets who grapple with the flash backs and memories of the people they were forced to kill; their buddies who were killed; the fear that comes with being shot at and under steady attack, return to their homes/countries where there is little recognition of nor thanks for their sacrifice. Rarely is the preemptive, unquestioned, unsolicited support and help given in order to provide them with whatever resources they need to decompress, to re-enter “normal” society upon their return, and as a result, many turn to substances – alcohol and/or drugs — to calm their thoughts and find some relief.
But what these veterans, and society, do not understand, is that there are very real chemical and structural changes caused by the mental health issues/illness (anxiety, depression, PTSD) as a result of their wartime experiences, and there are very real chemical and structural brain changes caused by substance abuse. Together, the two make it especially difficult to see hope and help, sometimes making suicide feel like the only option. And, short of suicide, the combination of an untreated mental illness and ongoing substance misuse can set them up for a lifetime struggle with substance abuse and/or addiction.
So please — for our veterans sake – listen to this news segment. And then do anything and everything you can to support our veterans; to thank them; to honor their courage and sacrifice; and most of all, to make it okay for them to talk about it, to seek therapy, to learn what “it” is and that “it” can be helped.