The Military Mental Health Crisis, A National Tragedy: Part I

  • A 20-year Suicide Epidemic among U.S. veterans has resulted in roughly twice as many deaths as occurred during the entire, 20-year Vietnam War
  • The federal government has almost completely ignored this crisis, with the result that veteran suicides are presently occurring at a record rate




Over the past 20 years, over 115,000 U.S. veterans have suffered premature deaths due to a single cause. That’s roughly double the total fatalities suffered by U.S. military personnel over the entire 20-year Vietnam War.

Did these veterans die in combat? No.

Did they succumb to some sort of (physical) disease? No.

All of these veterans died via suicide. They took their own lives as a result of serious mental health issues that were either poorly treated, or in some cases not treated at all.

The Suicide Epidemic. And twenty years after it started, veteran suicides are presently occurring at a record rate. An average of 22 suicides each day.

Imagine if some external power had inflicted 115,000 casualties on U.S. military forces in this century, at a rate of nearly 6,000 deaths per year.

That external power would face the full wrath of the U.S. war machine, an all-out mobilization to deal with the threat. Not a day would go by without inflammatory media headlines and government rhetoric, pointing an accusatory finger at this Enemy for these wrongful deaths.

However, when the “enemy” is the federal government itself and the same number of veterans die solely through the gross neglect of the government, there is only silence.

Only rare acknowledgements in the mainstream media of this national tragedy – and national disgrace. Even less lip-service from the federal government itself. Indeed, so detached is Washington from the horrific neglect of mental health in the United States that the Surgeon General himself finally noticed that there is an emerging Mental Health Crisis in the United States.

Was the Surgeon General addressing the media about the horrific Mental Health Crisis within the U.S. military? No.

Was the Surgeon General pointing at the even larger Mental Health Crisis among the general population in the United States? No.
 
“U.S. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy on Tuesday issued a public health advisory on the mental health challenges confronting youth, a rare warning…” [emphasis mine]

Yes, a “rare warning” indeed. A member of the federal government responsible for national health briefly descends from his ivory tower and realizes there is “an emerging crisis” in mental health.

And he can’t even focus on the largest problems.

To be sure, the horrific deterioration of mental health among young Americans is also an issue that needs addressing. But this is like someone looking at the aftermath of Hiroshima and only ‘seeing’ the smallest demographic of casualties.

It gets worse.

The Surgeon General then revealed his own general ignorance on mental health in the United States, not just among veterans, but in the overall population. Said Murthy.
 
“It would be a tragedy if we beat back one public health crisis only to allow another to grow in its place.” [emphasis mine]

In the fantasy-land of the Surgeon General and the rest of Washington, “mental health” is some brand-new problem in the United States and the twenty-year suicide epidemic among U.S. veterans is invisible.

Meanwhile, the Suicide Epidemic among the general population is now (at least) 8 years old. Also invisible to Washington, and its Surgeon General.

A single death from a “terrorist” is intolerable to this government. But when Americans kill themselves at a rate of, on average, one suicide every 10 minutes, the senior citizens of Congress can’t even rouse themselves from their daily naps long enough to notice – let alone actually do something about it.

These are the “leaders” whom U.S. veterans turned to for support, after serving their country and risking their lives in several, recent U.S. military conflicts. Returning veterans have been betrayed.

Veterans haven’t been rewarded for serving their country. They have been discarded, like used paper cups.

The root problem behind most mental health issues among U.S. veterans and the cause of most suicides is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). PTSD is a severe mental health disorder caused by some dramatic or sustained trauma.

Mild forms of PTSD can result among the general population from simply some “shocking, scary or dangerous event.”

With less-severe PTSD, most “who go through traumatic events may have temporary difficulty adjusting and coping, but with time and good self-care, they usually get better.” Even so, these people often experience “flashbacks, nightmares and severe anxiety, as well as uncontrollable thoughts about the event.”

However, with more severe forms of PTSD, people don’t “get better”. Now sometimes diagnosed as “complex PTSD”, more severe forms of this condition are “more enduring and extreme than those of [low-level] PTSD.”

In addition to the flashbacks, nightmares and severe anxiety, these sufferers are also highly at risk of substance abuse issues and “self-harm”. Depression often accompanies PTSD, exacerbating the severity of symptoms and increasing the risk of self-harm.

In its severe form, PTSD is an extremely dangerous mental health disorder, as attested to by the 115,000+ veteran suicides over the past 20 years.

While it is most common among military personnel exposed to combat, it is also becoming increasingly common among the general population, especially among first-responders. But veterans are the most-frequent casualties.

Modern warfare is every bit as gruesome as previous incarnations. However, one important difference for soldiers is that improvements in medical technology mean that a greater percentage of wounded personnel can now be saved.

Modern medicine can fix their bodies, with an admirable rate of success. But many of these surviving veterans end up with broken minds from their severe trauma. Here, conventional medical science has advanced very little.

More-extreme cases of PTSD require intense and effective therapies to deal with this extremely debilitating condition. Unfortunately, for 20 years, the U.S. federal government has been not just unable but unwilling to provide such therapies.

Indeed, recent headlines suggest that Washington is far more interested in sending U.S. troops off to fight in new wars than in providing adequate medical care to the soldiers who have put their lives on the line in previous wars.

A 2020 article from Military Times revealed that only about one-third of veterans being treated for PTSD by the Department of Veterans Affairs obtains any benefit from treatment.

What makes that statistic so damning is the enormous size of the PTSD epidemic.

At any given time, roughly 15% of U.S. veterans from the last four U.S. wars suffer from PTSD (going back to Vietnam). Roughly 30% of Vietnam veterans have suffered from PTSD at some point after returning home.

No good numbers exist on the total number of veterans of recent wars who have suffered from at least one episode of PTSD. A 2016 article from the NCBI quoted an estimate that as many as 500,000 Veterans from the Afghanistan and Iraq wars have been diagnosed with PTSD.

That number is obviously low.

In 2011 alone, the VA treated 476,515 veterans for PTSD. And this number needs to be put into context.

Referring back to the NCBI article:
 
less than half of returning veterans needing mental health services receive any treatment at all, and of those receiving treatment for PTSD and major depression, less than one-third are receiving evidence-based care.5  [emphasis mine]

Crunching these numbers, well over 1 million U.S. veterans of recent wars have been scarred by PTSD with less than 15% of those veterans receiving “evidence-based care”.

A national tragedy and a national disgrace.

The U.S. federal government is famous for regularly exhorting Americans to “support our troops”. Hollow, hypocritical words from a government that has largely abandoned over 1,000,000 veterans as they attempt to deal with the horrific consequences of PTSD.

Parts II and III of this series, will delve deeper into this national tragedy/disgrace.

In Part II of this series, we will take a personal look at PTSD: one veteran’s story of suffering and frustration. We’ll also crunch the numbers on how much the DoD wastes with minimally effective conventional therapies for PTSD. And we’ll look at the additional, devastating socioeconomic problems for veterans unable to obtain adequate mental health care.

Part III of this series will focus on amazingly effective mental health therapies for PTSD that currently exist. These therapies are mostly still sitting on the shelf today solely due to the corruption, apathy and neglect of the federal government.
 
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