Recently, I was in a room with several thousand veterans and a simple request was made, “If you, or someone close to you, has experienced mental health issues, please stand.” As I stood up, nearly everyone else in the room did too.
I shouldn’t have been surprised. I know the horrifying statistics related to mental health issues in the military community. Since 2001, just over 7,000 service members have died in combat and 120,000 have died by suicide.
Let that sink in. Same time frame. 7,000 lost in combat. 120,000 lost to suicide. Numbers do not lie; suicide is the greatest challenge facing our veteran and military community.
Alarming as it was to see so many others standing, I was encouraged by the fact that these veterans were brave enough to publicly acknowledge their struggles. Asking for help is the greatest barrier to preventing veteran suicide. Far too many service members are suffering in silence. If we are going to have a fighting chance at solving this problem, we need to break down the stigma associated with asking for mental health support.
Yes, it is National Suicide Prevention Month, but this issue must be at the front of our minds far beyond September. Putting an end to veteran suicide is an epic undertaking that won’t be solved in a week, month or year. We need a culture shift in society. It might take a generation to destroy the stigma around asking for help.
We must work together to make it OK for active duty service members and veterans to ask for mental health support. Our military men and women are trained as warriors, to accept every challenge and to be strong — no matter what. And while valor and heroism are celebrated within the context of combat, sometimes the most courageous thing a veteran may ever do, for themselves or their family, is raise their hand and admit they need help.
Great strides have been made on a federal level over the last several years. Our government has increased funding for mental health care programs. There have been monumental shifts in care and new resources like the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline which only requires a veteran to dial 988 then press 1. This has made asking for help easier and more accessible. However, even with all of this progress, 17 veterans a day continue to die by suicide. More must be done.
We must also focus on establishing solid and accessible peer-to-peer networks within communities, giving veterans safe spaces to be open about their struggles. Experts will tell you social connections save lives. Having someone to talk to can make a veteran feel cared for, seen and heard.
Now, we must ask each other one important question: How willing are you to help solve the veteran suicide crisis? If we’re going to make a difference, we must all participate. You can start today with one simple act — check in on a veteran in your life. Sometimes just knowing there’s someone who’ll listen can make all the difference. Or if you’re struggling, seek help. Talk to a fellow veteran, your doctor or even your religious leader. Commit to Be the One to take a step to get the care you need.
It is National Suicide Prevention Month. Prevention is the key word. Let’s take this opportunity to flip the script. Let’s stop talking about the 17 lives lost a day and start focusing on the one veteran that we can save. If we do this, we will make tremendous headway in helping our nation’s veterans heal.
Most importantly if you are struggling, pick up the phone, dial 988 and press 1. There is always someone willing to listen.
Veterans in need of emergency counseling can reach the Veterans Crisis line by dialing 988 or 1-800-273-8255 and selecting option 1 after connecting to reach a VA staffer. In addition, veterans, troops or their family members can also text 838255 or visit VeteransCrisisLine.net for assistance.
Vincent J. Troiola is from Rockland County, New York, and is currently serving as national commander of The American Legion. His primary initiative as the leader of the nation’s largest veterans service organization is to end veteran suicide through the Be the One effort of The American Legion. Learn more at www.betheone.org.
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