By: Lewis Runnion, Kyle White, and Dr. Lisa Berman, MD. Mindworx Medical Director
Summer is finally here, or at least it’s just around the corner. This weekend, families, friends and communities will gather in backyards, at parks, and on beaches to fire up the barbeques and enjoy the long Memorial Day weekend. And, with the end of the pandemic in sight who is to say a celebration isn’t exactly what this country needs? As you enjoy a much-deserved re-connection with friends and neighbors, we’d ask you to pause for a moment to reflect on what makes this long weekend so special.
Originally known as Decoration Day, Memorial Day was born out of a Civil War in which an estimated 800,000 Americans perished, the single most deadly conflict in American history. May 30th, later changed to the last Monday in May, was conceived as a day for communities to recognize those lost during the conflict and has become a permanent fixture on the calendars of Americans. Following World War I, Memorial Day was a somber observation set aside to recognize those who had fallen in that conflict. Years later, it was expanded to pay homage to those who had given their lives in all of our country’s wars.
As the war in Afghanistan ends, we’d like to believe that so too will the loss of American lives. Sadly, that’s not the case. As suicide remains an ever-present scourge on the entire veteran community, not just post 9/11 veterans, on this Memorial Day weekend we would like to bring to the forefront the subject of veteran suicide.
Veteran suicide is an ongoing crisis that numerous efforts and initiatives have failed to arrest, yet the stigma associated with mental health care remains within the broader society. Fearing repercussions from peers and superiors alike, service members still choose to hide mental health issues. Further, with the armed forces ever focused on readiness, service members often neglect mental health problems in favor of completing the mission. Now is the time to make it clear within the ranks: mental health is critical to readiness, and to the overall health and well-being of the force.
Mental health issues permeate every walk of life. Regardless of occupation, income, or level of education we have all been impacted by the devastating effects of COVID-19; families across the country face uncertain futures marked by economic hardships, physical challenges, and isolation; change is omnipresent and unsettling. As the stresses of everyday life impact everyone, the need for mental health care services has never been greater, but especially for the veteran whose problems are compounded by the unique stressors of their service.
Now is the time to recognize that suicide, Post-Traumatic Stress (PTS), and mental health in general are not only veteran problems but societal ones as well. Long overdue is the understanding and cooperation needed to end the stigma surrounding mental health care. The more we can normalize the discussion of treatment and the positive outcomes associated with it, the more it will help those that wear or have worn the uniform of our great nation. The substantial increase in telehealth services is a step in the right direction, allowing access to mental healthcare to many more people, but much more is needed.
So, what can you do this Memorial Day Weekend to honor those veterans who lost their lives to suicide? You can do your part to break the stigma of mental illness so that perhaps veterans struggling with suicidal thoughts now and in the future won’t feel too ashamed to get help. You can educate yourself. You can think about the words you use, the attitudes you maintain, and the sentiments you convey. You can offer support. Finally, you can be open about your own struggles if you have them to help break down the barriers of secrecy and shame.
So on this un-official beginning of summer, we ask that you enjoy time with friends and family, reconnect and recharge after a most challenging year. But, we also ask that sometime over the weekend you think about those who sacrificed to ensure the freedoms we enjoy, and to remember those who continue to endure their lingering battles now that they’re home. What might we do to help them enjoy a peaceful summer?