Friday, September 13, 2013

Spotlight on Suicide Awareness Month--Combating Invisible Wounds

September is Suicide Awareness Month, and Blue Star Families has asked its team of Everyone Serves bloggers to address this difficult but very important issue with our readers. 

In this post, I will be talking specifically about suicide as an issue in the military and veterans communities. That is not because suicide among these groups is any more or less critical of an issue to resolve than suicide among other groups. It's not. Suicide is an across-the-board issue, and there's no military-civilian divide when it comes to the devastating effects of suicide on families and communities. 

But honestly, my knowledge on the subject is woefully limited. I will do what I can to talk to my community about it here. I hope and pray that others more skilled than I am are talking to their communities as well.

Invisible Wounds. That's what we call them now. The term for the many emotional and psychological scars that our soldiers bring home with them from war. The scars we can't see, and sometimes the scars that are the hardest to heal.

For many years, suicide rates among the armed forces were lower than those of the civilian population by a significant percentage. They are still lower, but that is a small comfort when suicides have doubled during the course of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, to over 350 last year. In the Army in particular, the number has tripled. And the rates among our veterans are even higher: the VA estimates that 22 veterans take their lives every day in this country.

It's heartbreaking to think about, but some of these brave men and women survive multiple combat tours only to face even bigger challenges when they finally make it home. For some, it's the warfare emblazoned on their mind's eye, the battles fought and comrades lost. For others, it's coming "home" to a place where they feel like they no longer fit, and having difficulty acclimating back into their lives.

Of course, saying that warfare itself is the only cause for the rise in suicides among soldiers and veterans would be an oversimplication. There are certainly other factors that weigh heavily on these men and women. Things like frequent moves, and being far from friends and family. Things like the difficulties transitioning into life as civilians. Having a tough time finding jobs in a down economy, keeping homes, or just coping with every day life outside the structure of the military.

Whatever the cause, the effects are equally devastating, and the problem equally unacceptable. So the question is: what do we do?

It's a very hard, very individual answer, and I don't pretend to be remotely qualified to address it. But I think there are a few key places where we can focus our efforts to really make a difference:

Awareness: One key to preventing suicides is to be able to recognize the signs of trouble in the people around us, and in ourselves. I have listed below numerous resources where you can find more information about identifying the warning signs, and where you can turn for help if you think that a loved one might be grappling with suicidal thoughts (even, and especially, if that loved on is you). 

Understanding: It is easy to assume that because someone is home and not physically injured, they made it back in one piece. That, of course, is why they are called invisible wounds. We need to remember that people come back from war different. Sometimes those differences show themselves immediately, sometimes it is years later. Sometimes the differences are easy to deal with, sometimes not. 

We need to always keep this in the back of our minds. It will help us respond more compassionately when we get a glimpse of those invisible wounds. And it will help us avoid a situation where we make a soldier or veteran feel ashamed that those wounds are not healed.

Inclusion: Whether military or not, one major contributor to suicidal thoughts can be feelings of isolation and loneliness. I can only imagine how those feelings must be amplified when a person is taken from a group with shared experiences, and put back into a situation where most people do not understand. It must be overwhelming. It must feel like no one can relate. And let's be honest, sometimes it is really hard to. 

I think we need to go out of our way to find common ground, to chip away at that old military-civilian divide. To remind soldiers and veterans that there are other kinds of shared experiences, that there are other ways they can connect with people. That they do belong; they are counted; they do matter to the community they are in right now. 

Intentionality: By this, I simply mean we must resolve to do something. If we see someone struggling, if we notice the warning signs, we do something. We say something. If there are veterans in our community, we make a place for them. We make sure they feel like they belong. We do what we can to help people realize they are not forgotten. 

This does not have to look like grandiose acts. It can look like volunteering at a Veterans hospital, or participating in things like Team Red White and Blue or Wounded Warrior Project. It just means being purposeful with your kindness. You never know what small touch of humanity will make a difference.

Getting Help: The Everyone Serves book, a FREE resource developed by Blue Star Families, contains some very good resources concerning suicide awareness and prevention. In addition to those, more information can be found here:

If you are grappling with these issues yourself, my message to you is don't be ashamed, and don't delay. Get help. Talk to someone. Do it now.

If someone you love is grappling with these issues, my message to you is be there. Say something, and be ready to listen and help your loved one get help. And if you feel out of your depth, reach out to someone who can help you be a help. Do it now.


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