Ten years ago, September 2007, I came home to the U.S. after finishing a long combat tour in Baghdad, Iraq. During the months I was in Iraq from 2006 to 2007, the United States lost 1,491 military members, roughly ⅓ of the total deaths in Iraq from 2003-2017. I went to many vigils and memorial services; some for soldiers I knew, some for soldiers I didn’t. I was fortunate and came home uninjured and transitioned out of the active army back into the civilian work force.
While I often think about my friends and military members who didn’t come home, there is one death that took place while I was over there that I think about everyday, my oldest sister Heather. It was April 20, 2007 and my roommate and I were asleep. The chief of my task force woke us both up knocking on the door and when I answered I could tell by the look on his face that something was wrong. He told me something had happened back home as he handed me an Iraqna cell phone. My father spoke with me on the phone with a tone of voice I’d never heard before. He preceded to tell me that my oldest sister died by suicide.
From 1999 to 2014 the suicide rate in the United States increased 24%, from 10.5 to 13.0 suicides per 100,000 people, the highest rate recorded in 28 years. Currently, suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States. In 2015, suicide was the second leading cause of death for young people ages 15 to 24 and the third leading cause of death for those between the ages of 10 and 14. Approximately half of all suicides are committed by firearms, which accounts for roughly two-thirds of all firearms deaths. Together, these facts tell a story that most Americans are unaware of; our country has a deadly problem, suicide.
In my current role as the Executive Director of Got Your 6 (military slang for “I’ve got your back!”), a national campaign focused on veteran empowerment, I’ve been able to join forces with like minded organizations and people to speak out against stigma about mental health and begin to change the conversation. We’ve seen progress gaining national attention on suicide among veterans, but as more and more America’s learn that 20 veterans die by suicide everyday, I can’t help but worry that the public is unaware that suicide is an American problem, not just a veteran problem.
On February 12, 2015 I sat in the East Room of the White House as President Obama signed The Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans (SAV) Act into law. The law required independent reviews of the VA and the Department of Defense programs aimed at preventing suicide, created peer support and community outreach pilot programs, and formed a program to repay loan debt for psychiatry students to incentivize them to work in the VA health system.
While the law has been successful, additional funding did not accompany the bill making it difficult to fully implement. In a September Senate Veterans Affairs Committee (SVAC) hearing, lawmakers and VA Secretary Shulkin admitted that despite the loan repayment program and other incentives, the VA has not yet hired the 1,000 mental health professionals needed across the VA network. This failure points to a larger problem in the United States, highlighted by many Senators during the hearing; the United States has a nationwide shortage of mental health providers.
According to analysis by the U.S. Health Resources & Services Administration, the nation needs to add 10,000 providers to each of seven separate mental health care professions by 2025 to meet the expected growth in demand. While the VA has failed to bring 1,000 mental healthcare professionals into the largest healthcare network in the country, our nation needs to add nearly 10,000 new professionals a year between now and 2025 to meet demand.
I’m no doctor but the prognosis is clear; our nation is in critical condition and if we do not have a national strategy to recruit, train and retain mental health professionals while raising awareness of mental health issues among the general public, suicide rates will continue to grow and it will become more and more difficult to address this crisis. Without a national strategy, addressing suicide within subsets of the population will have limited impact.
While I didn’t know that September was suicide prevention month when I came home from Iraq in 2007, I now know that we must focus on suicide prevention every day of every month. I also know the power of sharing our stories and being informed on the issues that impact our families and communities. If you know someone who died by suicide, share their story. Share your story. Know the signs. Be there for each other. Together we can help America realize that we have a problem. Until then we will not be able to address it fully.