Guest Blog by Dustin Curtis
Everyone has scrolled endlessly through their phone to come across a video of someone knocking out 22 pushups to help raise awareness about the ongoing problem of veteran suicide. It was effective in helping spread the message about this societal problem but what is being done in the trenches to help combat it? Veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are still suffering the consequences of over 20 years of sustained combat. While the awareness of this mental health crisis has strengthened, it is still measuring short of where it needs to be. Communities can better equip themselves by having available resources and open conversations about the ever-evolving needs of our vulnerable veteran population.
Suicide is a very taboo topic to talk about in the veteran population. Being perceived as weak or not strong enough is a very real barrier for veterans that are struggling with suicidal ideation. Asking for help may seem like an insurmountable task so it’s important that we can recognize when something is off and offer our support even if they don’t accept it. Letting them know that you are there if they may ever need you is crucial in prevention. Having a conversation about suicide with a veteran will not make them more likely to attempt suicide so don’t be afraid to ask. It’s been proven that asking is more likely to save a life.
Also, the language we use when referring to suicide is progressing. Instead of saying “committed” suicide the proper phrase/descriptor is died by suicide. The word “commit” implies that a crime/sin has taken place furthering the shame associated with it. Subtle changes make a world of difference.
Another common issue that arises is the stigma associated with mental health issues/diagnoses. Being labeled crazy or unstable tends to steer veterans into isolation, furthering the decline of their mental health. Learning to embrace their diagnosis and obtaining healthy coping skills is a great place to start. Connecting with other veterans that have the same lived experiences is a powerful tool that can help promote a healthy lifestyle. Certified Peer Support Specialists are becoming valuable assets in the world of recovery as their unique perspective instills hope for the chance of a meaningful life. VFW’s, American Legion’s, veteran support groups, and veteran only events are some of the other options available to veterans. The stigma associated with mental health is slowly starting to shift as public perception and awareness is improving.
One of the newest approaches to help stop veteran suicide is having community discussions/programs led by veterans. This helps bring education and knowledge on a local level. Informed citizens will help booster efforts on suicide prevention and may save lives in the process. Next year the MVAA (Michigan Veteran Affairs Agency) https://www.michigan.gov/mvaa OR 800-MICH-VET (800-642-4838)
and MI Humanities will be rolling out a grant aimed at having 2-3 regional discussions about veteran mental health. These community discussions will be led by a veteran facilitator and each discussion will be built on the previous conversation. The facilitator will also have lived experiences with mental health issues. New initiatives like this grant will help raise awareness on veteran suicide and provide community members with valuable resources.
As a veteran who has encountered mental health struggles, I can relate to the issues veterans are facing. Depression, anxiety, isolation and hopelessness swirl together to form a viscous circle that seems impossible to be freed from. But on the other side there is self-improvement, tranquility, joyfulness and hope. I now work with veterans who have or have had suicidal ideation. Volunteers of America (https://www.voa.org) has a new program called SERV (Suicide Engagement and Referral Program for Veterans) that is aimed at veteran suicide prevention. It takes hard work and effort to make drastic changes in one’s life, but the end result is worth the price of admission.