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The unseen battle: Preventing suicide in our military community

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By this time tomorrow, we will lose 130 Americans to suicide. It is a scourge on our society from which no one is immune — regardless of social status, family situation, or other factors — depression and mental health challenges can impact all of us, but for our men and women in uniform, the toll is even higher.

In 2020, nearly 600 active-duty military members died by suicide, and in 2019, suicide claimed the lives of more than 200 military family members. It takes even more lives today than the average amount of deaths by hostile enemy action per year over the last 20 years, particularly among women who serve. To me, that is unacceptable. It should be to you, too.

Those who wear the uniform bear burdens the average American has absolutely no concept of, and the family members who stand beside them (many of whom are veterans themselves) willingly make incredible sacrifices as well, while coping with the significant pressures of the military lifestyle. We see that firsthand when families of ill or injured service members and veterans stay with us at Fisher Houses as their loved ones recover from physical injuries and ailments. But what no one sees are the invisible wounds and scars that take a lifetime to heal long after the physical recovery.

These statistics should startle you, but there’s hope. Proper treatment can lead to recovery and prevention, and mental health is on our radar and in our national dialogue more than ever before. But it’s not enough. It’s not enough because in 2020, less than half of US adults (46.2 percent) with mental illness received treatment. It’s not enough because 600 military lives were lost to suicide in one year which is 600 too many.

Gen. David Berger, 38th Commander of the US Marine Corps said it best, “We must create a community where seeking help and assistance are simply normal, important decisions.”

I want to be part of that community, because I know treatment works, but it can only work when we remove barriers like the stigma, costs and red tape that prevent so many from getting the help they need.

Now more than ever, it is important to engage in the critical conversation around mental health and suicide prevention not just for all Americans, but especially for our nation’s military heroes who may be grappling with the lingering impacts of war. A community of nonprofits, and public and private organizations, including my organization Fisher House Foundation, are bringing their own unique strengths to this fight against mental illness, but we need more change from both local and national entities to turn the tide.

It will take our elected officials coming together to enact policies to help make mental health services even more easily accessible to all, policies that have been proposed like:

  • Post-9/11 Veterans’ Mental Health Care Improvement Act of 2021: A bill proposed to expand access to mental health care, bolstering the Department of Veterans Affairs’ mental health care workforce and supporting research on suicide prevention and mental health efforts.
  • Support The Resilience of Our Nation’s Great (STRONG) Veterans Act: A bill that would expand culturally competent suicide prevention at the VA for veterans and significantly increase mental health staffing and training at VA medical centers.

It will also take our public figures, private businesses and community leaders joining the discussion to help normalize the conversation around mental health and available resources.

The civil-military divide continues to grow, but it doesn’t have to. You too can play a role. This National Suicide Prevention Month, I urge you to learn more about your local legislation and get involved with organizations in your community that support your local military community. It is our responsibility to make sure our service members and veterans know they are not alone, that their sacrifice will never be ignored or forgotten — and that their wounds, whether physical or mental, are our priority.

This battle will take all of us doing our part and is a duty that we as Americans owe to our military heroes.

Ken Fisher is chairman and CEO of Fisher House Foundation, a charity and foundation that builds comfort homes where military and veterans families can stay free of charge, while a loved one is in the hospital. For more information, you can reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline by dialing 988.

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