The men and women of America who sign up for the army come from a range of different backgrounds and may, similarly, have a range of equally different reasons for making such a career choice. Yet one safe assumption to make is that they all believe they will be fighting a common enemy. However, the real threat is not a physical one in a manner of an unpredictable terrorist attack or friendly fire; but rather, emotional and psychological. Clinical depression, as of 2012, has claimed the most lives, with the rate of reported suicides amongst veterans greater than the number of deaths in active duty personnel.

Image courtesy of NSuU5, © 2011, some rights reserved.
Image courtesy of NSuU5, © 2011, some rights reserved.

The statistics behind this new disturbing trend show that 295 soldiers died in combat, but the total number of soldiers who committed suicide, which stands at 349. These numbers were almost entirely male, with only 5% female and were, for a substantial part, from an army background, whose losses were greater than those suffered by the navy, marine, and air force combined.

In other terms, a veteran commits suicide every 80 minutes.

Further information reveals that 83% of the number of deaths officially declared as suicide occurred in the United States, in contrast to the 10% that were reportedly executed in such high-tension areas as Iraq and Afghanistan. The causes were believed to be marital problems, alcohol, and drug abuse, although these factors are merely symptoms of deeper psychological trauma. For instance, less than half of the total suicides were executed by soldiers who had been placed in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the violence has escalated to extreme heights. Yet only 15% of this number had experienced direct combat. From this premise, experience of the atrocities of war was not a necessary trigger of depression, as has been popularly believed. Instead, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and depression can be caused by bomb blasts and multiple concussions. Self-harm can also be increased by exposure to a single explosion with a blast greater than 330 miles per hour, which is sufficient to produce PTSD in soldiers within the vicinity. Homemade bombs are a prime example of this.

The army sends forces to some of the most inhospitable places on the earth and, as a coping mechanism, bonds (called “brotherhoods” for example) form and are just as close as blood relations. When a “brother” falls, even when the soldier does not directly witness the death, it can contribute to a sense of guilt and failure that sows a seed of delayed anguish. An explanation offered by psychologists is coined by the term “moral injury,” meaning veterans feel isolated from the people and lives they left behind at home or from the person they used to be, after all of the things they have seen and done.

The US military has now entered a new phase of combat against what has been dubbed as suicide “epidemic,” affecting all branches of the army.

Soldiers may be heralded as living heroes upon their return, but once the material accolades have been placed on the shelves, they are often left with severe psychological issues and are rarely given support, thus going undiagnosed. The treatment offered to soldiers who are wounded during the course of combat is usually taken care of by a group of highly trained doctors and nurses on home soil, who can sew them back together and offer rehabilitation. However, injuries of a psychological nature are rarely given as much attention, owing to the culture of secrecy. The notion of perceiving “macho” qualities as paramount to a good soldier means that actual data collected on matters of self-harm are conservative. When troops return home and complete the mandatory self-assessments of their individual experiences, and whether they intend to seek counselling for substance abuse, they were two to four times more likely to declare themselves as depressed or suicidal when given the opportunity of anonymity. Hence, soldiers are told to airbrush their answers by their superiors.

When symptoms of depression interfere with their performance during duty, soldiers are either heavily prescribed anti-psychotic medication or are told to self-discharge since having a medical discharge on their record makes any future employability virtually zero.

As a means of tackling this issue, the Obama administration partnered up with the Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) to create a Suicide Prevention program that would offer a variety of different initiatives and emotional support. Slogans designed to promote positive messages and educate members of the publics of the signs of depression were released, such as “Stand By Them,” and “Never Let Our Buddy Fight Alone.” Further funds were also granted by the President himself to increase the Veterans Crisis Line by 50% and the VA has started expanding their current services by recruiting 1,600 new clinical staff, as well as hiring and training 800 “peer to peer” specialists as part of a growing mental health scheme. Shinseki, the VA secretary stated, “We have more work to do and we will use this data to continue to strengthen our suicide prevention efforts and ensure all Veterans receive the care they have earned and deserve,” since the organisation believes that “even one suicide is too many.”[1]

While innovative steps like these are intended to reduce the stigma attached to mental health issues and promote a sense of solidarity, they are still understaffed and underfunded. The government’s budget allocates $2 billion, or 4% of the $53 billion of the annual medical expenditures, to treatment for mental health. The Department of Veteran Affairs spends $73 million of its $6.2 billion mental health budget on suicide prevention alone. However, cases demonstrate that the supply doesn’t quite meet the demand and often does not prevent the very thing it was created for. A woman whose husband had been battling depression after returning home from a mission in the Middle East urged her husband to use the Pentagon’s crisis hotline, but after being left on hold for over 45 minutes, he sent a final text to his wife before taking his own life: “STILL on hold.”

Greater funding is required in order to effectively combat suicide and offer more support to veterans and their families. However, it is within all branches of the military that the changes must occur. Removing the stigma attached to depression and other manifestations of mental issues will present the greatest challenge to a government that has permitted suicide to become more lethal than any traditional form of warfare. Rather like a scene from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, these soldiers who are washing the blood off their hands are not the culprits, but the victims of an ineffective administration.



[1] http://www.defense.gov/news/newsarticle.aspx?id=119166

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