Today, Veterans Day, our nation honors the men and women who have served our country. Cities host parades, department stores have sales, schools and the Federal Government close. Most of us are thankful for a day off. But how many of us will stop and think about the tremendous sacrifices made by those in the military community – the risks they take and the burdens they carry? And how many of us will take the time to reflect on how families and lives are forever changed as a result of war?
Since September 11, 2001, over 2 million men and women have deployed to fight the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – many of these have deployed multiple times. During this time, countless family members have suffered through multiple separations. And let’s not forget the 5,798 American men and women who have died during these wars or the 40,000 who have come home with significant physical injuries. In addition, many of our troops come home with invisible injuries of war including post traumatic stress, traumatic brain injury, depression and anxiety.
Sadly, a large number of those who suffer these invisible injuries fail to seek the care that they so need and deserve. The stigma associated with seeking mental health care and our cultural reluctance to admit mental health concerns prevents many of the brave men and women in our armed forces from obtaining proper treatment.
Families are suffering. A recent study in the journal, Pediatrics, found that young children in military families are about 10% more likely to see a doctor for a mental health difficulty when a parent is deployed than when the parent is home. Social scientists have long known that the cycle of deployment and reintegration puts a significant strain on the families of those who serve, particularly spouses. Given that the conflict in Iraq has been underway for over seven long years, tens of thousands of military children have only known the experience of war.
While most civilians are familiar with the terms “post traumatic stress” and “traumatic brain injury” it is striking how little the average person knows about these very understandable, yet potentially devastating, consequences of war. Movies and television programs often portray veterans suffering with post traumatic stress as out-of-control and hyper-aggressive. While difficulties with impulse control and rage are indeed possible manifestations there is a range of other symptoms and reactions that are less well known. Some withdraw and become disengaged from those around. Others have difficulty finding meaning in life, while others may experience anxiety, flashbacks and severe sleep disturbance. Sometimes the painful mental health symptoms that result from the experience of war lead to self-medication and substance abuse and suicide. Then there is the dramatic increase in the number of suicides reported by active duty personnel as well as those who have separated from the military.
Some members of our military community come home to families that cannot possibly understand what they have seen or done. Unable to bridge the gap between who they were when they deployed and who they are upon return, our service members find themselves in relationships that falter and marriages that fail.
But there is reason to hope. Many within government and Veterans Affairs, the academic community, the nonprofit sector, the entertainment industry, and caring individuals in communities across the country are stepping up to assist those who serve our country and their families.
The rest of us can help by recognizing and accepting psychological injuries of war and encouraging our veterans to receive proper care and treatment in a timely manner. Together, we can stem the tide of suicides and save hundreds of thousands of service members who have come home from war with injuries that they alone cannot heal. In order to be successful in this mission, however, we must harness the goodwill, the knowledge, the resources and the commitment of a thankful nation that recognizes the sacrifices made by so few for so many.
SRxA’s Word on Health would like to honor and thank all of our Veterans.