The Best Way To Help Veterans With Mental Illness

Today is Veterans Day, the day of the year in which we are supposed to remind ourselves about the importance of the veterans who have served all of us. It’s a solemn day…one which most people know better by the kind of sales they can get and if they get the day off or not.

As an elected official, I’ve certainly been to my share of Veterans Day events, and had three leading up to today. That being said, they are events which always leave me feeling inadequate. Why? I never served in the military, and while I don’t believe that is necessary to be a good public servant, I do always worry about talking to veterans and thinking that they must think I don’t understand what they have been through. That’s me projecting, to an extent, but of course, I don’t understand what they have been through, the things they have seen.

As a politician, I’ve always said that I want to be judged by my actions, not my words. And when it comes to taking care of our veterans, far too many of our actions come up short. This goes double when it comes to mental illness. A brief look at the facts reveals:

These numbers are unacceptable. Those who give so much for us should receive even more in return. That being said, for the vast majority of us, our options are limited. Let me pose this question, then, if you’d like to learn more about how to help our vets: What can you do to help veterans who are suffering from a mental illness?

Here are a few thoughts.

Understand what you don’t understand

One of the things I have realized in my time in government and the mental health universe is that you will not understand everything – and that’s okay. You don’t have to understand what it was like to serve. You don’t have to actually have experienced someone else’s pain to understand that it exists. Not being a veteran doesn’t disqualify you from this conversation, but it does require extra effort. Read up on the specific challenges which veterans face. Learn more about what they need and how you can help. This broader prospective will put you in a better position to help those who need it.

Support groups who support vets

While the need is great, the response has been as well. Numerous organizations do a fantastic job of taking care of our veterans. If you can afford to do so, please contribute to these organizations, because while the passion is there, the funding often is not.

Read up on veteran-specific mental health issues

Part of understanding veterans issues is learning more about them. PTSD and TBI (traumatic brain injury) are both tragically common for veterans. If this is something you want to learn more about, read up on these two devastating diseases, and learn more about how you can help.

Talk about it, and find others who know more

The best way to address and reduce stigma is to talk about it – but to do so in a way which is inclusive. Discussing mental illness is important, but talking about it from the perspective of a veteran even more so. Make sure to be inclusive when discussing mental illness and stigma, and make sure to rely on other voices (like veterans) who may have more experience than you.

I know I missed a lot here – as usual, I’d love your thoughts. Do I have a goo handle on this? What am I missing? Fill us in in in the comments section!

Veterans and Mental Health: A challenge which must be met

If you are one of my American readers, a very happy Memorial Day to you, and I hope you get to enjoy this three day weekend with your friends and family.

That being said, my hope with this blog has always been to educate, and I wanted to take a minute to do just that when it comes to Memorial Day. This day, which began to be observed after the Civil War, was done to honor veterans who have fallen in the service of the United States. I’ve always believed that the best way to celebrate this day is not just to memorialize the dead, but to do everything we can to prevent the living from joining their ranks.

As such, let’s take a quick look at the mental health challenges our veterans face.

The numbers, as you can expect, are brutal:

  • According to Mental Health First Aid, 30% of active duty personnel deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan need mental health treatment. However, of that 30%, only half actually get the treatment they need.
  • Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) rates are fifteen times higher among veterans than civilians.
  • The depression rate is five times higher among veterans.

Tragically, suicide rates among veterans are also extremely elevated. According to a 2018 report:

  • From 2005-2016, there are roughly 6,000 veteran suicides every year.
  • That number has increased at a rate greater than the rate among the civilian population.
  • The rate of firearm suicides is higher among veterans (65.4%) than non veterans (48.4%).
  • Veterans who used Veterans Health Administration care saw a smaller increase in suicide rates (13.7%) than those who did not (26%).

These numbers are truly brutal. More to the point, they’re shameful. We need to honor veterans with more than gauzy words and the Pledge of Allegiance. These brave men and women truly do put their lives on hold in order to protect the rest of us left behind. They sacrifice. They deserve more than our respect and a day where we barbecue. They deserve our care.

What does that involve? As you can imagine, that answer is complicated, complex and expensive – and well above my pay grade. Broadly speaking, however, I’d argue there are at least a few things we need to do.

First of all, if you have a depressed veteran in your family, it’s important that you know that resources are out there to help. It’s also worth noting that the Veterans Administration is clearly trying to address this continuing problem. There has been extensive talk about overhauling the way we provide our veterans health care, and it’s clear that we need to do more in order to tackle this issue. Furthermore, multiple studies have shown that mental health stigma keeps service members from getting the help they need and deserve. As such, clear that the military, and society as a whole, must continue to tackle mental health stigma.

So, again, happy and solemn Memorial Day to you and your family. I hope that this blog entry has made you more aware of the challenges our veterans face and the unacceptable reality that we lose over 6,000 every year to suicide, and thousands more who suffer from pain-filled lives as a result of their service.

We need to do better. Our men and women in uniform deserve nothing more.

A mental health hero: Jason Kander

Last week, a brave politician made national news by dropping out of a high profile Mayoral race. That man is Jason Kander, and he’s someone worthy of our attention and praise.

Kander is the former Missouri Secretary of State. In 2016, he ran for the U.S. Senate as a Democrat, and in a tough year for Democrats, he came within three points of defeating incumbent Senator Roy Blunt. Kander ran an amazing campaign and aired one of the best ads of 2016, in which he talked about his army background and support for universal background checks while assembling a gun…blindfolded.

Kander’s military story is equally impressive: He volunteered for the Missouri and volunteered for a tour in Afghanistan in 2005, serving as an intellegence officer.

Kander’s political star was on the rise, and until last week, Kander was a candidate for Mayor in Kansas City. That changed with this heartbreaking note, in which Kander discussed his battle with depression, PTSD and suicidal ideation:

About four months ago, I contacted the VA to get help. It had been about 11 years since I left Afghanistan as an Army Intelligence Officer, and my tour over there still impacted me every day. So many men and women who served our country did so much more than me and were in so much more danger than I was on my four-month tour. I can’t have PTSD, I told myself, because I didn’t earn it.

But, on some level, I knew something was deeply wrong, and that it hadn’t felt that way before my deployment. After 11 years of this, I finally took a step toward dealing with it, but I didn’t step far enough.

I went online and filled out the VA forms, but I left boxes unchecked — too scared to acknowledge my true symptoms. I knew I needed help and yet I still stopped short. I was afraid of the stigma. I was thinking about what it could mean for my political future if someone found out.

Kander dropped out of the race and has since been silent on social media. I assume – and sincerely hope – he is getting the care he needs and deserves.

Broadly speaking, the stats on veterans, mental health and suicide are horrifying:

  • According to a 2014 report by the Department of Defense, there were 1,080 suicide attempts (245 suicides) among active-duty service members for all armed services in calendar year 2013.

  • A recent study of 52,780 active-duty members of the U.S. Air Force found that 3 percent of male participants and 5.2 percent of female participants reported suicidal ideation in the previous year. Of the participants that reported suicidal ideation, 8.7 percent also reported a recent suicide attempt.

  • Veterans who screened positive for PTSD were 4 times more likely to report suicidal ideation than veterans who did not, and the likelihood of suicidalideation was 5.7 times greater in veterans who screened positive for PTSD and two or more comorbid disorders.

Those who take care of us – our first responders and military veterans – deserve better. And I sincerely hope that Kander’s story helps to push this issue.

It takes people like Kander – national political rock stars – discuss their pain, to destigmatize an issue, and to help more people get help. I can only imagine how many veterans are looking at Kander and thinking, “Me, too,” and then hopefully getting the help they need. Kander’s words will have a larger impact than I think most of us could ever hope to have.

Most importantly, best wishes to Kander. I cannot imagine what demons he faces – what pain he took on – in the name of protecting America. He, and countless other veterans and first responders – deserve our love, and our resources, to heal. I am so grateful to all of them for their bravery.