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Veteran Suicide and Alternative Therapies: A New Approach to Healing Our Heroes

Next month there is a significant issue that cannot be overlooked. September is the month of observing Veteran Suicide, and it must be addressed as an issue deeply embedded in our nation's heart. Veterans are brave individuals who have donned the uniform, defended our freedoms, and faced dangers most of us can't imagine. Still, tragically, these individuals are taking their own lives at alarming rates. The weight of their experiences, often fraught with trauma and loss, is a burden they silently bear.

As of September 2021, here are some key statistics related to veteran suicide in the United States, primarily sourced from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA):

· Overall Rate: On average, approximately 17 veterans die by suicide daily. This doesn't include active-duty servicemembers, members of the National Guard or Reserve not on active duty.

· Comparison to Non-Veterans: The suicide rate for veterans was 1.5 times greater than the rate for non-veteran adults after adjusting for age and gender.

· Gender Disparities: While the male veteran population had a higher absolute count of suicides, female veterans had a suicide rate 2.2 times greater than their non-veteran counterparts.

· Firearms: The use of firearms as a method of suicide was significantly higher among veterans than non-veterans. About 70% of veteran suicides resulted from firearm injuries.

· Age: The age group with the highest number of veteran suicides was the 55-74. However, the rate of suicide was highest among younger veterans aged 18-34.

· State Differences: The VA report also highlighted differences in veteran suicide rates by state, indicating that regional or local factors might influence these rates.

· Trends Over Time: As of the latest reports, there had been a slight increase in veteran suicides compared to previous years, but the rate of increase had slowed compared to the early 2000s.

It's important to note that while these statistics provide an overview of the situation as of 2021, numbers and trends may have evolved since then. For the most current and detailed data, I recommend checking the latest Annual Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report or similar publications from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs or other reputable organizations.

It's also important to recognize that signs and symptoms related to suicide may be similar across different populations, including veterans. However, given the unique challenges and experiences veterans face, there are some specific indicators that professionals and loved ones should be particularly aware of.

Here are some general signs and symptoms associated with suicide risks, followed by those that might be more uniquely relevant to veterans:

General Signs and Symptoms:

· Verbal Warnings: Mentioning feelings of hopelessness, expressing a desire to die, or making verbal threats to harm oneself.

· Social Isolation: Withdrawing from friends, family, and community activities.

· Mood Swings: Sudden and dramatic mood changes, from extremely depressed to calm or even happy.

· Risky Behavior: Engaging in dangerous activities without consideration of potential consequences.

· Changes in Routine: Alterations in sleep, appetite, and daily activities.

· Final Arrangements: Making final arrangements, such as giving away possessions, writing a will, or setting affairs in order.

· Seeking Means: Attempting to procure tools or means, like firearms or medications, to commit suicide.

Signs More Relevant to Veterans:

Combat Trauma: Symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), like flashbacks, nightmares, and severe anxiety.

Guilt or Shame: Feelings of guilt, shame, or failure related to military experiences.

Physical Pain or Limitations: Struggling with combat-related injuries or chronic pain.

Substance Abuse: Excessive use of alcohol, prescription drugs, or other substances, which might be an attempt to cope with trauma or emotional pain.

Reintegration Challenges: Difficulties in adjusting to civilian life, feeling disconnected or out of place, struggling with employment or relationships.

Burdensome Feelings: Feeling like a burden to family or friends due to mental health struggles, physical disabilities, or other challenges faced post-service.

Perceived Failure: Feeling like they haven't lived up to their own, their family's, or the military's expectations.

Taking Action:

If someone displays any of these signs or symptoms, especially acute or intense, immediate intervention might be required. Encourage them to speak with a mental health professional, contact crisis lines, or visit a local emergency room. Remember, it's better to err on the side of caution. For veterans in the U.S., the Veterans Crisis Line is a valuable resource that can be reached at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255) and then pressing "1".

Lastly, always maintain open lines of communication, offer a listening ear without judgment, and encourage professional help when needed.

The even bigger question is, how do we respond? With empathy, action, and a willingness to explore every avenue to help our heroes heal.

Traditional therapy and medication have been the common routes to tackle PTSD, depression, and other mental health challenges for veterans. And while these methods are essential, they may not be enough. This is where alternative therapies come into play. These aren't just trends or experimental whims but methods rooted in ancient practices, contemporary science, and sometimes a blend of both.

Equine therapy, for instance, is an emerging alternative that has shown incredible promise. Veterans find a sense of purpose, mindfulness, and connection through bonding with and caring for horses. The silent understanding between a veteran and a horse often bridges gaps where words fail.

Art and music therapy offer another respite. They give veterans the tools to express feelings that might be too painful or complex for words alone. Creating art or music can provide a therapeutic outlet, allowing emotional release and healing.

Mindfulness and meditation have ancient roots, but modern implications for healing. By learning to control their breath and focus their thoughts, veterans can find a reprieve from the chaos of their traumas. These practices can rewire the brain, encouraging a more peaceful and centered existence.

Then there's nature therapy – the simple, yet profound act of spending time outdoors. Be it through hiking, fishing, or just sitting in a park, nature has a unique way of grounding us. For a mind tormented by traumatic memories, the tranquillity of the outdoors offers a sanctuary.

Finally, emerging research into psychedelic-assisted therapy suggests that certain substances might help reframe traumatic experiences and offer profound breakthroughs under controlled and supervised conditions.

Of course, the efficacy of these alternative therapies varies, and one size doesn’t fit all. But their potential is undeniable. Our veterans deserve every tool in the toolbox, every opportunity to find peace and healing.

But to truly tackle the issue of veteran suicide, it's not enough to merely offer therapies. We need to reshape our societal approach to mental health, removing the stigmas attached to seeking help. A soldier should never feel that admitting mental anguish is a sign of weakness. In truth, seeking help is perhaps the bravest act of all.

Ladies and gentlemen, our heroes have faced battles on distant shores, but now we must help them conquer battles within their minds. We owe them the most comprehensive, empathetic, and innovative care we can muster. We owe them our understanding, our patience, and our support.

Let us commit ourselves to this noble mission, for in helping them heal, we uplift the entire fabric of our nation.

Thank you.

Image provided by John Heintzelman using software (2023).

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