“Honor the service members who gave their lives by helping those who made it home”
Each year on the last Monday of May, we remember and honor those who have died while in military service- Memorial Day. A great way of honoring the fallen is by helping those who have returned home- more than 22 million veterans, their families and the communities they live in- with what can be an extremely difficult transition.
Dr. Shauna Springer, the Senior Director of TAPS Suicide Prevention Initiative shares that Memorial Day can be especially daunting for veterans with post-traumatic stress (PTS) triggering painful memories. For many veterans, Memorial Day brings a sharp increase not only of trauma memories, but also feelings of acute grief and loss, and in some cases, a heavy burden of survivor guilt. These triggers can lead to the following feelings:
Significant emotional distress
Negative beliefs about oneself and the world, leading to mistrust of others
Persistent feelings of guilt, shame, self-blame and anger
Isolation from friends, family and social activities
Employing unhealthy coping mechanisms such as using alcohol and illegal drugs
Symptoms of increased arousal, including irritability and anger management problems
Engaging in high-risk behaviors
While military service often fosters resilience in individuals and families, some service members may experience mental health or substance use challenges. The statistics are devastating:
Thirty percent of active duty and reserve military personnel deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan have a mental health condition requiring treatment – about 730,000 men and women – with many experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder and major depression
Sadly, less than 50 percent of returning veterans in need receive any mental health treatment
Veterans have between four to 10 times the risk for PTS symptoms than the general population in a given year
10-12 percent suffer with major depression
22 percent of recent veterans suffer with symptoms of traumatic brain injury
Veterans have twice the risk of suicidal ideation
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs reports that approximately 22 veterans die by suicide every day
There are three primary mental health concerns that a person may encounter serving in the military:
Post-Traumatic Stress (PTS). Traumatic events, such as military combat, assault, disasters or sexual assault can have long-lasting negative effects such as trouble sleeping, anger, nightmares, being jumpy and alcohol and drug abuse. When these troubles don't go away, it could be PTS. The 2014 JAMA Psychiatry study found the rate of PTS to be 15 times higher than civilians.
Depression. More than just experiencing sadness, depression doesn't mean you are weak, nor is it something that you can simply "just get over." Depression interferes with daily life and normal functioning and may require treatment. The 2014 JAMA Psychiatry study found the rate of depression to be five times higher than civilians.
Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). A traumatic brain injury is usually the result of significant blow to the head or body. Symptoms can include headaches, fatigue or drowsiness, memory problems and mood changes and mood swings.
Transitioning Back To Civilian Life
So why is this transition so hard? Dr. Katherine Mitchell shares that returning veterans are leaving a culture in which they are trained for war, and in which every aspect of their daily lives is regulated, to return to a civilian society in which most people have not served and have no idea what the troops have experienced. A veteran’s transition process can last for months and even years.
Veterans have been trained to stay focused on the mission and not acknowledge pain or the perceived weakness of asking for help. While a necessity in war, this mindset can be a persistent obstacle when transitioning to civilian life. Civilians close to them can remind them that it's not a weakness to ask for help.
Over time, with a combination of support from peers and professional mental health counseling, veterans may become open to the possibility of accessing support services — both community-based and at the VA — to help them with housing, education, substance abuse treatment, vocational training, couple and relationship support, as well as a wide variety of peer support activities.
How Can You Support?
If your friend or family member is a veteran who might be triggered, Dr Springer suggests that you validate and empathize with their feelings. "Rather than looking for signs of negative impacts around Memorial Day, it is often helpful to proactively support the veterans in our lives," Springer told Connecting Vets. "We can say something like, 'I will never forget the service and sacrifice of our fallen' or 'I stand with you in grieving the loss of those who made the ultimate sacrifice.'"
It's not just what you say, she says, but what you do.
"More than anything you can say though, taking action to stand with veterans on Memorial Day is critical. Asking the veterans in your life how you can honor the fallen together and then doing this with them actively helps reintegrate our veterans back into society, Springer said.