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Modern healthcare solutions are needed to curb service member suicide

Image for military suicide awareness. (U.S. Air Force illustration by Airman 1st Class Kathryn R.C. Reaves)
May 29, 2020

The suicide rate among active duty service members and military veterans continues to grow. According to the latest research from 2018 (which in itself is alarmingly outdated), the Defense Department reported 325 active-duty suicides, the highest number since the department began collecting the data in 2001 and exceeding a record set in 2012. The Marine Corps suicide rate is highest, followed by the Army, Navy, and Airforce.

Time and time again, the conversation around mental health and suicide is not addressed until it’s finally brought to the attention of senior leaders by personnel who speak up and ask for help. The truth, however, is that asking for help very well may be the hardest part. Those who take that next step are forced into a bureaucratic nightmare, which often leads to long wait times to get an appointment with a mental health provider. But even then, the treatment plan often includes medication like anti-depressants, sleep aids and pain pills, all of which lead to substance use disorders, addiction, and an alarming number of intentional and “unintentional” suicides—drinking or taking too many drugs from which they never wake up. In fact, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs, 20 veterans and active-duty personnel die by suicide every day, and one in 15 veterans are dealing with a substance use disorder, which is often a precursor to either intentional or unintentional suicide. For those in crisis who don’t have months, weeks, or even days to wait, that unfortunate outcome becomes accelerated.

The way mental health awareness and treatment is currently handled among active duty military and veterans is too slow and cumbersome to make a significant difference.  And while podcasts and social media campaigns like push-up challenges help spread awareness of the problem, even the Defense Department leadership admits they don’t have the answer to preventing future suicides, despite claiming to have the means and resources to get ahead of it. And now, we’re seeing the problem begin to trickle down to younger cadets at U.S. military academies as the stress and pressure of military life impact the mental and physical health of these individuals.

In order to prevent service member suicide, the approach to mental health awareness and treatment among our active duty soldiers and veterans must change. Here’s how we can do better:

  • Early intervention. We can’t wait for soldiers and veterans to come forward for help after a deployment. Those who have voluntarily served our country deserve more than to be ignored and dismissed or sent home with a bottle of pills after a three-month wait to see a doctor. We have an inherent obligation to help these men and women get the support they need. The sacrifices they have made under extreme duress will likely result in PTSD, high anxiety, depression, and difficulty coping. Instead of trying to undo the damage, we must work to prevent it from happening in the first place. How? We must get the therapist out of the treatment room and into the field. By embedding mental health professionals in the field alongside servicemembers, they can have immediate access to the resources and help they need to de-escalate a situation before it spirals out of control.
  • Modern access to healthcare. While many industries have transitioned to remote work, the medical community has been slow to adopt telemedicine. But the COVID-19 crisis has forced a massive shift to occur practically overnight, showing that it is possible to access virtual medical services when the need is urgent—whether for a COVID-19 screening, AA meeting or therapy session. Whether at home or overseas, there should be great urgency to prevent the tragic deaths of American heroes. The government and various branches of the U.S. Armed Forces must take the next step in adopting modern healthcare by providing access to telehealth, mental health and addiction treatment resources to soldiers and veterans who need it now.
  • Assimilation assistance. Assimilating into civilian society is one of the most difficult parts of life after service. Not only are veterans carrying the heavy burden of PTSD and chronic pain, the military does a very poor job of discharging personnel and preparing them for the transition. There are great programs, like Hire a Hero and Boots to Suits, but many don’t take advantage of them or know they exist. Military discharge leaves many in a state of limbo, lacking purpose and too much time on their hands—which unfortunately too often leads to drinking and drug use. Providing basic assimilation skills can smooth the transition to civilian life and help our heroes go on to become healthy, productive veterans.
  • Stem cell treatments for chronic pain. Physical combat wounds that don’t fully heal can contribute directly to lack of sleep and substance use disorder. I was severely injured during hand-to-hand combat in Sadr City, Iraq. I suffered from long-term chronic pain due to a broken back, collapsed lung, and severe shoulder injury. I’d drink to dull the pain, become drowsy, maybe get an hour of sleep, and then I’d be awake again. I eventually underwent stem cell injections and a stem cell infusion and experienced a complete metamorphosis. My pain level went from a 7-8 to 1-2 and I could finally get the sleep I so desperately needed. We often underestimate the importance of sleep, but helping veterans get quality rest is crucial to healing, both physically and mentally. Modern pain treatments should be a priority because they could give so many service members the relief needed to finally get quality sleep and back to normal life.
  • Brain mapping and new PTSD therapies. A big reason personnel don’t seek mental health support is because the results are hard to see in the beginning. Many feel therapy is a waste of time because there’s no feedback loop. Neurofeedback and brain imaging/mapping techniques can provide quantifiable feedback to incentivize treatment. I saw my own brain transform through this technique. It went from fraught with agitation, adrenaline and anger, to calm and functioning normally. Demonstrating empirical changes that show the brain is healing can encourage greater participation in long-term therapy. There have also been promising new medical therapies for PTSD which are delivering great results. Stellate ganglion block, in which a local anesthetic is injected into nerves within the neck that regulate the body’s “fight or flight” response, has shown to be effective, along with ketamine drip therapy as a rapid treatment for PTSD symptoms. Nutritional changes, dietary supplements like magnesium and vitamin D, and testosterone replacement can also dramatically improve depression, energy levels and frame of mind. While availability is limited since many of these therapies are in the early stages of development, we owe it to our military service members and veterans to continue exploring new innovative treatments.

It’s time to eliminate the stigma. One of the biggest problems related to how mental health and suicide are dealt with in the military is the fact that it’s often not dealt with at all. Speaking out and recommending new, innovative approaches on how to deal with these issues is not always viewed favorably. For example, Ryan Larkin, a highly decorated Navy SEAL with four combat tours under his belt took his own life at 29. Ryan had repeatedly made statements about how broken the system was and that he himself was broken, but no one listened. He was ignored, along with an untold number of other active duty military and veterans.

We have failed our service members miserably, and we’ll continue to fail them if the approach to mental health awareness and treatment doesn’t change now. We must start providing real, practical solutions because our service members deserve treatments and solutions worthy of their service, honor, and sacrifice to help them live a healthy and productive life.

Dan Cerrillo is a decorated Navy SEAL veteran who currently serves as the chief of staff for American Addiction Centers. He is the recipient of the Bronze Star, Navy Commendation and Navy Achievement Medals, all with combat distinguishing devices, as well as the Purple Heart Medal. Dan graduated as an original member of BUD/S Class 194 and served with SEAL Team One as an operator and instructor. In 1998, Dan was accepted to the Naval Special Warfare Center/ Special Operations instructor staff and received his accreditation as a Master Training Specialist for Advanced Applied Explosives, Diving Supervisor, Diving Maintenance and Range Operations Safety. He also earned a finance degree from National University. Dan now works full time assisting veterans with addiction and PTSD. He also serves on the board of directors for the Navy SEAL Fund and GEO Flight Academy. Dan is an ambassador for the Navy SEAL Foundation and financial advisor to The Time For A Hero Foundation. In 2020,  Dan was part of creating the Navy SEAL Support Alliance, a joint endeavor of the Navy SEALs Fund, SEAL Future Foundation, SEAL Family Foundation, Warrior Health Foundation, Time For A Hero Foundation, America’s Mighty Warrior Foundation and American Addiction Centers.

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