It was a crisp and clean morning in Fairfax Virginia. I forced myself out of bed at the wee hours of the morning, strapped on my well-worn old combat boots, and sipped on my coffee on the way to the event. We arrived around 0800 as people milled around the registration booth. People were chipper despite the morning hours. Maybe it was the pleasant weather. Maybe it was the electricity that seemed to permeate through the air. The crowd was excited. They wore colored beads, photos of loved ones on banners, and cheered as the emcee announced how much money we raised. This vitality was a stark contrast to the event we were participating in. We were walking in support of suicide prevention. The pictures of smiling young faces were family members lost to suicide.
Though there was no stigma in the air that morning, as soon as the walk ended it felt that we returned back to a realm where suicide and mental illness bears the scarlet letter of shame. I have known three colleagues who felt there was no other way out. I knew them all personally, served with them in the Air Force, and was shocked at their choice. I tried to empathize why they thought death was the only release from this pain or if there were any warning signs I saw but ignored. But like so many of the survivors of suicide victims I was left with burning unanswered questions.
Suicide in nature is an absolute solution to a temporary problem. It is easy to state that without being in that suffering soul’s predicament where the pain is so overwhelming it clouds everything. Mental illness is just that, an illness. But in many cultures it is viewed as a weakness and a pariah. It is that thing we whisper about and never dare to actually talk about. With the sad passing of Robin Williams there was a spark at a national level to talk about this devastating disease. But I believe it has passed the mainstream media and we are still left with the stigma. According to a recent Huffington Post article, Veterans account for 10 percent of the US population but account roughly to be one out of every 5 suicides in US. CNN calculated that every day 22 veterans commit suicide and our community outpaces every demographic for suicide.
I’m not debating the why or how of this escalating issue, but appalled that in this day and age anyone struggling with mental illness feels a stigma or bias to being treated. Whether that person is active duty, a veteran waiting for a mental illness appointment, or your coworker, no matter who you are—those who suffer from this disease are afraid of bias of others around them to be perceived as weak. Other diseases such as cancer, diabetes, nor heart diseases are not viewed this way. So why are depression, bi-polar, and other mental illnesses?
We are fighting a war on stigma. We are fighting a war to aid people to get the help they desperately need. We are fighting a war so that everyone does not feel alone in their desperation. I am fighting so I will not have to add anymore friends to a rock to remember their life that was cut tragically short and possibly could have been avoided. I am fighting for VO, Ferg, and Omar and those who have survived them.
We learn how to identify the signs of depression in the military and how to point the individual in need in the right direction for help. But there is more the military can do to show service members with depression it’s okay to seek help.
How can we remove this stigma from our military and society? Does awareness have to go beyond introductory training programs? Maybe it has to be incorporated in our public school systems?
Below are links for you to help prevent suicide as well as signs and information on depression:
Comment below or start the conversation here and connect within the military community.
*These opinions belong to the writer and in no way reflect the views of the DoD or other departments of the US government.