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Peer-to-peer programs are vital in the fight to help veterans

Michael Brown | The Buffalo News

For most of the past 15 years, military conflict has been a reality for our country’s service men and women. Day in and day out, we have seen news coverage and read scores of reports about the fighting in war-torn parts of the world where America’s military has bravely served the cause of freedom.

Now, a generation of veterans are bringing the hardships of war home and continuing to fight an all-too-often silent battle, with far too many brave heroes becoming casualties of war far from the battlefield.

A recent front-page story in the New York Times described a Marine Corps battalion devastated by suicide. The article stated that, of the 1,200 Marines deployed in Afghanistan with the Second Battalion, Seventh Marine Regiment in 2008, at least 13 have since taken their own lives. That haunting statistic is nearly 14 times the suicide rate for all Americans.

While the facts are beyond troubling, the article focuses necessary attention on the lengths to which veterans are going to help each other in order to stop what has become a troubling epidemic.

The suicide rate in the U.S. Army began climbing in the early 2000s, and by 2008, it exceeded the demographically matched civilian rate – 20.2 suicide deaths per 100,000 versus 19.2 (National Institute of Mental Health).

Between October 2006 and June 2013, the Veterans Crisis Line received more than 890,000 calls. That number does not include chats and texts.

Furthermore, a recent analysis of new military data conducted by the Morning Sentinel, a newspaper in Waterville, Maine, uncovered what it could only term as a “shocking trend: U.S. Army suicides outnumbered all combat deaths in January of this year [2009].”

Paul Reckhoff, who heads the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America organization, upon learning of this, put it into perspective: “We lost more soldiers to suicide than to al-Qaida.”

A survey by the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America showed that 30 percent of service members have considered taking their own life, and 45 percent said they know an Iraq or Afghanistan veteran who has attempted suicide. Yet the war is not over, and there are many more soldiers on their way to serve, and many others who are making the journey home to face what comes next.

The New York State Department of Veterans Affairs has a list that includes 71,000 New Yorkers as having served in Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) and Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF). Currently, over 11,000 New Yorkers are deployed in support of OEF and OIF. It is easy to see the potential impact that the lack of suicide prevention awareness can have here in New York.

While the suicide statistics among veterans are the most outwardly glaring sign that more must be done to assist our returning military, there are other prescient signs that many veterans are teetering on a dangerous brink.

An estimated one in five veterans have returned from battle with post-traumatic stress or major depression in the years since the 9/11 attacks. Yet many are not aware of and/or do not seek available treatment, perpetuating a difficult lifelong transition for themselves and their families.

When people develop mental health disorders, they are likely to descend further into poverty, both because of increased health care costs as well as decreased productivity and lost opportunities for employment. In Western New York alone, an estimated 8,800 veterans are unemployed. In 2009, 5,421 were unemployed and in 2008, 3,936 were unemployed.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates that, nationwide, over 15 percent of veterans who have served post-9/11 are unemployed, which is an increase from 12.6 percent unemployment from the prior year.

By promoting clinical services and peer-to-peer community support programs such as the Compeer Vet 2 Vet Program and Operation Family Caregiver for Western New York veterans and their families, we can change the way service members and veterans think about mental health care and the stigma of receiving treatment.

In addition to offering one-to-one friendships, veterans in these programs conduct community outreach through seminars, webinars, health fairs and electronic newsletters highlighting local services. Compeer also offers Mental Health First Aid to military members along with family support for the caregivers – “heroes at home” – as they adjust to a new normal.

These critical veterans’ programs, among others like Vet Court, are at high risk. As we move further away from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, support will fade. As noted in the Times article, peer-to-peer support, though not a panacea, brings a crucial element to the fight against suicide – mutual understanding and a sense of camaraderie to those seeking help. Service members have begun to reach out because volunteers have worn the uniform and understand the struggle.

As more lives are lost each day and countless others recede further into the darkness of depression, we must advocate for a paradigm shift in the way we think about suicide, treatment and mental health care. We have a shared responsibility to keep our veterans and their families safe, as they have done for us.

Michele Brown is executive director of Compeer of Greater Buffalo.

Mental Health
Peer Support