During the April PTSD/Substance Abuse Committee meeting we discussed the growing concern surrounding suicide among veterans, with a special focus on the aging Vietnam veteran population. Vietnam veterans came home to a society where many citizens actively rejected our best efforts to protect and serve this country. Certainly, it was not everyone, but it was enough. We could not escape the fact that our service was not wholeheartedly affirmed by society. Many of us understood the criticism as freedom of speech—one of the freedoms we fought for—but we did not like it.
In this complex, nuanced, and layered context, far too many felt we did not fit in. Of course, this feeling was normal after a deployment and during the transition and readjustment to civilian life and a more peaceful world. We all tried to fit in, believing that it would somehow just happen, given enough time; believing the nightmares and flashbacks would go away in time; believing our ache to have done more for those we left in-county would diminish in time; believing our quick tempers and hyper situational awareness would simmer down to civilian levels in time.
After all, in crisis situations we were able to function quite well. For many, these beliefs slowly became real. Some found another way. Some veterans just looked around, observed how others were reacting to events and situations and measured their average reaction and adopted them as their own, setting aside our yearning to be “normal” and learning how to fit in. We believed that by assuming the behaviors and reactions of the civilians around us, our shelved aches and emotional pains would be replaced in time.
The denial described here worked well, for a while. According to the “Healthy Lifestyle” section of the Mayo Clinic website, “Denial is a coping mechanism that gives you time to adjust to distressing situations—but staying in denial can interfere with treatment or your ability to tackle challenges.”
For a time denial seemed to work. Many of us have survived and thrived since coming home. The massive amounts of energy necessary to control the emotional, psychological and mental gymnastics necessary to do “normal” are not at the levels of a 20-, 30-, or 40-year-old. In other words, our ability to outrun the issues by applying vast amounts of focus and energy to our careers, families, and volunteer activities takes a big hit as a function of aging.
When we retire or just slow down, these issues can come roaring back. The Suicide Data Report—2012, prepared by the VA, indicates that the suicide rate for veterans over fifty years old is higher than the population at large and more than triples by age seventy. These statistics cry out for more research. These statistics also are a call to action.
Suicide or substance abuse is not inevitable. There are many ways to intervene when someone exhibits signs of self-harm. When the habit of keeping the issues shelved and in denial is no longer working, consider acting on the suggestions of Dr. Charles W. Hoge, from his book Once a Warrior Always a Warrior:
I would add to the list: Talk to other warriors. Talk to trusted family and friends. Just talking about anything at first paves the way to discuss deeper concerns as trust is built. The PTSD/SA Committee agrees that old dogs can build new paths to resiliency and enjoy friends, family, and other veterans in a new way. Being ourselves, freed of the burden of keeping our entire inventory shelved and closed, allows us to build our own resiliency as we savor life.
The PTSD/SA Committee looks forward to your feedback on this issue and any others concerning veterans mental health.
Thomas C. Hall, Ph. D., Chair