It is understandable that the media and community tend to focus on the people killed in action in wars, as well as on the civilian casualties in the war zone. But it does mean that the ongoing impacts on the soldiers who return home can be forgotten – especially those who return apparently unwounded.
It is an unfortunate tendency of governments to be more enthusiastic about sending people to war than they are about caring for the same people after they return. It seems this is especially bad in the USA. Despite the thousands of causalities their defence personnel have suffered in Iraq and Afghanistan – much greater not just in actual numbers but proportionally as well – this story (found through the Huffington Post) reports the astonishing fact that suicides of returned US veterans may actually be greater in number than those killed in action.
The number of suicides among veterans of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan may exceed the combat death toll because of inadequate mental health care, the U.S. government’s top psychiatric researcher said. Community mental health centers, hobbled by financial limits, haven’t provided enough scientifically sound care, especially in rural areas, said Thomas Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, Maryland. He briefed reporters today at the American Psychiatric Association’s annual meeting in Washington.
Insel echoed a Rand Corporation study published last month that found about 20 percent of returning U.S. soldiers have post- traumatic stress disorder or depression, and only half of them receive treatment. About 1.6 million U.S. troops have fought in the two wars since October 2001, the report said. About 4,560 soldiers had died in the conflicts as of today, the Defense Department reported on its Web site.
Based on those figures and established suicide rates for similar patients who commonly develop substance abuse and other complications of post-traumatic stress disorder, “it’s quite possible that the suicides and psychiatric mortality of this war could trump the combat deaths,” Insel said.
Sometimes even when reading reports like this we can think about it mostly in terms of numbers, so it is worth reminding ourselves that these numbers represent individual people, as well as many more families and friends directly affected (as of course are the many many people in Iraq and Afghanistan whose lives are traumatised and shattered by war). This story mentions one instance, which I link to to put a human face on the statistics. The story also states that “an estimated 1,000 attempts a month now reported”.
I am sure the support provided in Australia to returned personnel is on the whole better, but I also am sure we can do better, particularly in regards to support for mental health.
UPDATE: On 9 May, Veterans’ Affairs Minister Alan Griffin made a low key announcement of a new mental health initiative for current service personnel, veterans and their families called At Ease.
The initiative is designed to meet the mental health needs of personnel returning from service in areas of conflict or from peace keeping missions but will be open to all service personnel and their families. A 24 hour crisis hotline has also been made available.
Part of the rationale behind At Ease to raise awareness of mental health issues within the service community and to give service personnel and their families a chance to recognise deterioration in mental health and what to do and where to go about seeking help in dealing with the problem.
This is a timely announcement and one which I hope will help address the shortfall in mental health services for Australia’s defence force personnel.