Why Mentioning Suicide Statistics, PTSD, or Depression Does Not Help Veterans
This is a follow up to a recent podcast episode I did on veteran suicide and resilience. You can find it here: https://itun.es/us/gmwybb.c
We hear it over and over. Organizations are partially named after it, events are named after it, it’s on flags, newsletters, news headlines, and on tee shirts. It’s an evil number. No, I’m not talking about 666. I’m talking about the number 22.
In case you’ve been living under a rock for the last five years, the number 22 represents the 22 veterans who commit suicide everyday in this country. It has become a rallying cry for veterans groups and veteran advocates around the country, and its purpose is to raise awareness about the plague of veteran suicide. I myself mentioned it over and over again to remind people of this horrible trend.
But I’m never going to mention it again.
It’s not a matter of the number being inaccurate. I would still be just as disturbed if the number was closer to one a day, or even one per month.
I’m actually going to stop talking about veteran suicide altogether. I’m also going to stop talking about PTSD and depression amongst veterans. I’m going to stop talking about these labels because I don’t believe continually mentioning them helps veterans in any way.
Within the political posturing and the popular media’s fetishization of veterans issues, we are forgetting something: veterans are human beings. They are human beings who have done some extraordinary things, and who have possibly had to deal with some pretty horrible things, but they are still human.
Because we are dealing with actual people here and not numbers or robots, we also have to recognize a fact: people follow examples and trends. We are all potentially subject to a phenomenon called social proof, something renowned social psychologist Robert Cialdini highlights in his book Influence.
According to Dr. Cialdini, we often determine our behavior by following the examples of others, and we particularly emulate the behaviors of others who are most like ourselves. He highlights data from research that demonstrates that this is particularly true of suicides. Specifically, after a suicide is widely publicized, the suicide rate tends to go up in the same geographic area that the suicide occurs.
Now I’m not saying that veteran suicides are just a matter of veterans copying each other, but for a veteran going through a difficult time, hearing about a massive number of veteran suicides probably isn’t the best thing for his psyche.
Similarly, constantly speaking about PTSD and depression in the veteran community presents it’s own problems. Many veterans are avoiding treatment for actual problems because they do not want to be stigmatized or stereotyped with a PTSD diagnosis.
Additionally, we find a small minority of veterans overacting the part and playing up the PTSD stereotype as an excuse for poor behavior. This, in my opinion, is a stain on the reputation of so many veterans who are working to build their lives and to become successful in their post military careers.
Treatment for mental issues should be fully and widely available for all veterans who have served honorably, but treatment and awareness alone will not put the veteran community in a better place.
What will help the veteran community are veterans who do awesome things. We need to hear more about veterans like Derek Weida, who despite losing a leg, is doing amazing things in the athletic world:
We need to hear more about veterans like Jocko Willink and Leif Babin, who after operating serving as officers in Seal Team 3, Task Unit Bruiser, in the bloody Battle for Ramadi, started a successful leadership consulting company.
Finally we need to hear more about veterans like you. Yes, I mean you, the veteran who’s reading this and taking the initiative to improve his or her life. It doesn’t matter if you’re a professional athlete or a successful business person yet, what matters is that you are on the journey to get to where you want to be.
You need to be taking to social media and youtube to tell people about your story: what you’re working on in school, how you’re starting your business, or what you’re doing to stay fit. If you need help spreading the word, send us your videos and blogs and we’ll post them here.
The bottom line is this: veterans are a resilient and capable group. We should not be defining ourselves with tragedy. We need to be defining ourselves with success.