Every hour, one of our Veterans commits suicide. Although suicide affects Americans across all age brackets, demographics, genders and races, our Veterans are experiencing it at an alarming rate that continues to climb year in and year out. Since 2001, more than 3,000 active duty military men and women have ended their own lives. More than 20 Veterans commit suicide each day. And the latest research says that suicide — not homelessness, unemployment or the other struggles facing our returning military personnel —is the issue that weighs most heavily on the minds of our Veterans (http://www.usatoday.com/story/nation/2013/07/30/iraq-afghanistan-veterans-say-suicide-biggest-issue-they-face/2599085/).
All these startling, saddening facts point to one, million-dollar question: How do we prevent these suicides? With more of our courageous warriors dying by their own hand than on the battlefield, it’s obvious that our current approach isn’t working. In honor of National Suicide Prevention Month, and all the courageous military personnel experiencing this tragic epidemic, I propose we change the tone of our suicide prevention dialogue. Here’s my approach to preventing suicide among Veterans and all the other demographics I serve as an applied positive psychology coach.
Remove the stigma.
An estimated 350 million people worldwide live with depression, but you’d think that none of us experience it, given how uncomfortable we feel talking about it. Depression shouldn’t be a taboo or an embarrassing detail we cautiously share with others; it’s a condition that we should discuss as openly as we do the common cold. The stigma and judgment surrounding depression in our culture deters many people from seeking out the help they need to keep their sadness and hopelessness at bay.
In the case of Veterans, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder often plays a major role in triggering depression and suicidal thoughts. Nearly one-third of the Veterans treated by Veteran Affairs have this condition, and considering the misconception that PTSD is a sign of mental weakness, the actual number of our Vets with this disorder is likely much higher (http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2012/10/21/nearly-30-of-vets-treated-by-v-a-have-ptsd.html). By reframing our cultural discourse toward PTSD, we can recognize it as a wound, not a weakness. It’s time for stigma to stop trumping our Vets’ honor and virtue.
When it comes to post-traumatic stress, one way to combat stigma is to take the “D” out of PTSD. By removing the notion that this condition is a disorder. PTSD is not crazy, and it’s not a disease. It’s a natural byproduct of unnatural stress that our troops face, the physical manifestation of the invisible wounds of their minds, emotions and spirits experience while experiencing heightened trauma during war. PTS is also a moral injury that must be reconciled not numbed.
In short, we should think of depression and PTS not as signs of personal shortfall, but as our body’s alarm system — its way of telling us that something just isn’t right. Untreated depression, PTS and other related disorders can lead to suicidal thoughts and, eventually, suicide; that’s why it’s crucial that we feel comfortable enough to recognize these conditions so that we can answer the alarm and get help.
Redefine health care.
And when Veterans and other individuals do reach out for help, it’s important that what we give them doesn’t solely come in the form of a prescription pill. Although there may be chemical irregularities associated with Clinical Depression and PTS, our “physical only” approach to health care treats the symptom, not the cause.
In order to prevent suicide, we need to redefine health care to treat the patient as a whole — physically, mentally and emotionally. For many Veterans, PTS and depression are triggered by the stresses and traumas of the battlefield (before, during and after war). These deeply ingrained experiences aren’t resolved through medication. Through my experience providing positive psychology coaching for wounded warriors, I’ve helped them transform these negative experiences into opportunities for personal growth. Through conversation-based therapies and mindfulness training, individuals can be guided to a place where they reframe their trauma, depression and suicidal thoughts, focusing on what they can control so that they can use their negative energy as motivation to find happiness. An integrated, stigma-free approach to total wellness that addresses the mind, body and emotions is not only key to treatment but also to prophylactic prevention.
Rebuild our happiness.
The goal of positive psychology isn’t to make people so shiny and happy that they never experience suffering or dark moments. That’s impossible. What positive psychology does do is help individuals achieve self-mastery through recognizing and using character strengths to build resilience. Through this process of transforming suicidal thoughts, depression and PTS suffering into a reframed experience or a very personal story filled with transcendent opportunities, individuals can achieve Post-Traumatic Growth, the ability to weather life’s turbulence and trauma with strength, hopefulness and positivity. And here’s the best part about PTG: once it’s learned, we can call upon it each time the going gets extremely tough to pull us safely through.
Now is the time to change our suicide prevention strategy. Let’s join together to get rid of the stigma, redefine our treatment approach and help our brave, talented warriors find the happiness they deserve. We owe it to them, and to our nation, to answer this crucial call to duty.