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How to reverse the rising trend in veteran suicide rates

Posted in Philosophical Ramblings, The Human Condition | 4 comments

My squad in Iraq.

My squad in Iraq.

By the end of the day today, 22 men and women who fought for this nation’s freedom will take their own life.

[Note - This post is a result of the growing number of articles regarding the rising trend in veteran suicide rates. As a veteran, this concerns me deeply and I decided to offer my insight on the subject in order to reverse this trend. Whether or not you are a veteran or have a veteran in the family, this article will shed light on trauma and finding growth through it. We all go through some degree of struggle and adversity and although the focus of this article will be toward veterans, I invite you to apply the same principles behind it in your own life]

In late June, US army veteran of the war in Iraq, Daniel Somers took his own life. His heart wrenching suicide note went viral across the Internet. Devastated by the impact of his last words, readers across the nation spread the note around with the noble intention of preventing similar tragedies within the veteran community.

Yet, as you read this, another 22 veterans will have committed suicide on this day.

As a fellow veteran of the war in Iraq, I have the utmost sympathy for Daniel Somers and the suffering he and his family have endured. I myself lost a friend and fellow Marine to suicide less than one year after we both returned home from Iraq.

The Problem

But, spreading the suicide note Somers left behind will not help reverse this rising trend in veteran suicide rates. It will only preserve the status quo, or even make things worse.

Articles on veteran suicides are littered all over the Internet almost every month. Forbes and Reuters published one in February. Psychology Today published one in March. In May, the New York Times published an article titled: “Baffling rise in suicides plague US military.”

A recent article in Time magazine said that “no initiative or program has worked to reverse this trend.”

Why is that?

Because every article that comes out on veteran suicide rates focuses entirely on the problem. The nation as a whole approaches this issue in the same manner. An increased awareness on the problem does not in any way address the solution. It is of no wonder then that nothing has been done to reverse the trend.

All we do by publishing stories like that of Daniel Somers is tacitly condone suicide as a means to respond to the struggle of returning from war. It gives subconscious permission for other veterans to do the same thing.

Professor David Phillips, a sociologist at the University of California, documented this in a study of suicide statistics in the United States between 1947 and 1968. He found that within two months of every single suicide story that was published on the front page of a newspaper, an average of 58 more people than usual killed themselves. This increase in suicide rates occurred solely in the area where the initial suicide was publicized. He also found that if the trigger suicide event reached a wider audience, the number of later suicides increased as well.

The obvious question then is what can we do instead?

The solution

The very first step is for us a society to shift the conversation from post-traumatic stress disorder to post-traumatic growth as the inevitable long-term reaction to war.

In a survey conducted at West Point, Dr. Martin Seligman, the director of the positive psychology center at the University of Pennsylvania, found that more than 90% of cadets had heard of PTSD, but less than 10% had heard of post-traumatic Growth.

Dr. Seligman says, “If all a soldier knows about is PTSD, and not about resilience and growth, it creates a self-fulfilling downward spiral.”

When we focus our awareness on the problem, we give power to it by implanting a belief that PTSD and suicide are pervasive and normal reactions to war. It tells our veterans that they will need help and will suffer from their experiences, which in turn becomes the reality.

Dr. Stephen Joseph, the author of What Doesn’t Kill us, says the trauma industry has “created a culture of expectation in which there is a mistaken assumption that PTSD is both inevitable and inescapable.”

Suicide rates will continue to rise if this is how we choose to react to them.

If, on the other hand, we were to focus our collective conscience on the preemptive solution of post-traumatic growth and teach our veterans resilience, they would learn to expect that outcome.

In time, we could even remove the word PTSD from our awareness to create post-traumatic growth as the only word to define the human reaction to trauma. This would guarantee that more people experience growth from trauma than disorder.

Tony Robbins has validated the impact of language on our emotional state in his work with people that reduced their depression simply by conditioning the word out of their vocabulary.

Examples of resilience in action and a new definition of trauma would psychologically prepare our veterans for trauma beforehand and shift their expectations as to the impact of it.

Brigadier General Rhonda Cornum is one such example.

Creating new references

In 1991, Cornum was shot down in Iraq and lost five crewmembers in the process. The impact broke both her arms and one of her legs. She was then captured by Saddam Hussein’s army, sexually assaulted and held prisoner for 8 days before being released. Despite the horrors of her experience, she walked away stronger as a result of them.

If stories like Cornum’s were to go viral, it would shift the general belief from trauma equals disorder to trauma equals growth.

But how many of these kinds of stories do you see spreading across the internet? Not nearly as many as the stories about veterans committing suicide.

The more positive examples we see of resilience and post-traumatic growth, the more validity it would give to its possibility. These stories would give veterans other references to choose from when they assign meaning to their experiences.

Dr. Joseph says, “Culture frames how we think about psychiatric disorders. What we define as psychological problems and how we deal with those problems are nothing more than contingent decisions made by society at some given point in history. They are decisions – Not facts.”

Culture frames how we react to any of life’s experiences because it sets references for what is “correct” behavior. In fact, all experiences and memories are nothing more than references which we use to make decisions on how we will respond to any event.

Dan Ariely, the bestselling author of Predictably Irrational, says “Humans rarely choose things in absolute terms. We are always looking at things around us in relation to others. We can’t help it.”

The references set by culture and our previous experiences become benchmarks we use for our entire lives as we look at things in relation to others.

As a result, if all veterans hear about is that war leads to mental illness, that becomes the only reference point they have to assign meaning to their experiences of trauma.

The faster we implant examples of post-traumatic growth into the mainstream consciousness, the faster we create a new decision on the meaning of trauma and a more empowering self-fulfilling prophecy.

When asked about the impact of her traumatic experience, Cornum replied, “I wouldn’t have chosen it, but since it did happen, I chose how I was going to respond to it. Because you can still learn from a catastrophe and have some good thing result from it in the future.”

Does this mean that she will never experience a nightmare as a result? Not necessarily. But what is important is not the symptom, it is what she makes those symptoms mean.

Our current cultural definition of trauma has set up almost all our veterans to make the slightest symptom mean that something is wrong with them.

In the second article on turning trauma into growth, we will go more into the impact of trauma and shifting the meanings we assign to it.

Until then…

Today’s action steps

- Find examples of resilience to start the process of conditioning a new reaction to trauma. Give yourself new references to choose from. This simple exercise of finding new references can shift the way you live your life.

To illustrate, let me give you a short example. When Reinhold Messner first climbed Everest without Oxygen, doctors said it was impossible and that no human being could survive the summit of Everest without supplemental Oxygen. Yet, after he accomplished the feat, numerous others followed his footsteps. He showed the world what was possible and inevitably it became easier for others to mentally conceive a replication of his feat.

- The second step is to search for examples in your own past of when you found growth in trauma. If you have none, ask yourself what could be valuable from any trauma you have experienced? What could be a meaningful aspect of that trauma? Do this and write a list of all the positive things you can come up with.

This can be a challenging exercise for some, but remember in any situation there are two ways you can approach it, one that empowers you and drives your life forward or one that brings you down. Just as Brigadier General Cornum found meaning in her experience, you too can do the same. Sometimes you just have to dig deep to do so.

Bestselling authors Chip and Dan Heath call this practice finding the bright spots. They say that “When it’s time to change, we must look for bright spots — the first signs that things are working, the first precious As and Bs on our report card. We need to ask ourselves a question that sounds simple but is, in fact, deeply unnatural: What’s working and how can we do more of it?”

So find what worked about your experience and start reinforcing those elements.

In the next post, we will go into more shifting neurological pathways that are ingrained into your emotional brain, for now just gain access to new references.

Please share what you find in the comments below, either your own experience of post-traumatic growth or from someone else, so we can all benefit from them.

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4 Comments

  1. Great article man!! Being a Marine, I can relate to this. I remember coming back from our deployment in ’08 and doing all the post deployment evaluations to see if we had PTSD. None of our guys ever admitted to having symptoms of PTSD. We knew what they were. But we weren’t really fully aware of them. I remember becoming an alcoholic and a consistent chain-smoker after deployment. With the stresses of migrating back into civilian life, you do go into a depress state. I guess, you really don’t become aware of the symptoms until you almost hit rock bottom. Luckily, I changed before I hit rock bottom. Even though I never got diagnosed with PTSD, I have experience a minor depression due to the rapid changes of life through a deployment.

    I think the military needs to adapt this theory of PT- growth. I would love to see what kind of impact it would have on our society.

    • Hey Albert. Thanks for being open and sharing your experience. I am sorry to hear about the struggles you had once you returned home, but I am glad to hear you were able to change before you hit rock bottom. I completely understand the hardship that is a part of transitioning from life in a war zone to civilian life. In the next article I am going to talk more about the nature of that transition and why it presents such hardship as well as address strategies to overcome the damaging symptoms of PTSD. This article was more about the big picture regarding our beliefs about the subject to set up the framework for the entire conversation. I am glad you enjoyed the article though Albert. If you are still experiencing some depression, let me know if you would like to talk. Feel free to reach out and we can set up a conversation. I think I will be able to help.

  2. Nice article, man. It’s nice to see something we can do and a way to help others rather than a solutionless reason to be depressed further.

    • Thanks JJ! We just have to shift the cultural context through which we view trauma, and anything really if we want to change our society.

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