Commentary

Veteran suicide is a problem. Hyperbaric oxygen therapy is a solution.

Each year, the United States recognizes September as National Suicide Prevention Month. In 2017 alone, more than 47,000 Americans tragically died from suicide. More than 6,100 of these Americans were veterans. In 2017, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) found veterans were 1.5 times more likely to die by suicide than the average non-veteran adult. Additionally, according to the latest data from the VA, an average of 17 veterans perish from suicide every day.

Many of our heroes spend difficult months, if not years, in often hostile lands missing their families and loved ones to preserve the freedom we enjoy here in America. Yet some may return from their experiences so mentally scarred that they lose all hope and take their own lives upon return. This tragedy is one of the most heartbreaking trends in our country and it simply does not receive the attention it deserves. Even those veterans who don’t fall victim to their own despair must still cope with nightmares and other sensory overloads as they relive their horrifying experiences. These terrifying events oftentimes have a tremendous negative effect on their relationships with loved ones and family members, which prevent them from returning to a peaceful existence.

Studies have shown that post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury (TBI) could play a major factor in veteran deaths by suicide. A 2015 study found that as many as 500,000 veterans who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan were diagnosed with PTSD. A lot of these veterans take to drugs and alcohol to escape the terror of their thoughts, beginning a dangerous downward spiral oftentimes with a devastating outcome. While there are proven therapies to help our veterans, they simply do not help everyone in trouble. Treatments are aimed at lessening the symptoms for PTSD/TBI, but at present there is no cure. There are those who believe hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT) may be just that for those most in need. It is presently FDA approved to treat inflammation in the body, and many believe TBI and PTSD are the result of brain inflammation from trauma. In all transparency, there is some controversy about using this treatment for this specific indication, but when there is nowhere else to turn, we must keep searching for answers. Our veterans deserve it.

HBOT is conducted by placing the patient in a pressurized room or tube and delivering pure oxygen. By delivering more oxygen to an individual’s lungs, their blood can carry more oxygen to help heal cells in their body, including in the brain. Although more research needs to be done to determine how effective HBOT is in combating PTSD and TBI, many people who use this treatment have found it to be successful.

Our veterans, who have valiantly sacrificed so much to serve our country, deserve every resource available to let them get their lives back. If they have not responded to standard treatments, we owe it to them to give them access to HBOT.

That’s why I introduced the Veterans National Traumatic Brain Injury Treatment Act during National Suicide Prevention Month. If passed, my legislation would direct the secretary of the VA to create a HBOT pilot program for veterans who suffer from TBI or PTSD.

While serving in the North Carolina State House of Representatives, I sponsored and passed legislation providing HBOT therapy for veterans in my state. Now as I serve the 3rd Congressional District of North Carolina, which is home to over 95,000 veterans, the third most in the country, I am pushing to make this potentially life-saving therapy available to all veterans in our country.

American veterans deserve every opportunity to enjoy the same freedom they secured for the rest of us. It’s Congress’ duty to make sure they can.

Rep. Greg Murphy, M.D., was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in September 2019 for North Carolina’s 3rd Congressional District. He is the only practicing physician in Congress.

Editor’s note: This is an Op-Ed and as such, the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond, or have an editorial of your own you would like to submit, please contact Military Times managing editor Howard Altman, haltman@militarytimes.com.

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