All across the country today, people are gathering to celebrate our nation’s veterans. We commemorate the brave men and women who risk their lives to protect our freedom. Parades, monument dedications, and various ceremonies are held to honor them.
When the last ceremony has ended, and the confetti and fanfare have cleared up, how do we pay attention to these people whom we laud as heroes beyond this one day of remembrance?
Based on the thousands of veterans who are suffering with mental disorders, medical issues, and homelessness, we aren’t doing very much.
According to the U.S. government, more than 60,000 veterans are homeless on any given day. Almost twice that number are homeless over the course of a year. Because data on the homeless population is part science and part guesswork, this can be a very conservative estimate. Almost 1.5 million veterans are at risk for becoming homeless in the future due to numerous factors.
Mental health is, inarguably, one of these factors. Of the 1.7 million veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, 300,000 (20%) suffer from Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or Major Depression. These numbers reflect individuals who actually seek treatment. Stigma surrounding mental health issues in the military community has commonly been cited as a major obstacle to overcome in seeking services. Women in the military face an increased risk of developing a mental health disorder, with 25% of female veterans developing PTSD related to “military sexual trauma.” These rates increase in soldiers with traumatic brain injuries. Of the individuals who report an injury involving losing consciousness, 44% go on to have PTSD within three months.
Veterans are also at risk of developing substance use issues, particularly in conjunction with PTSD. The prevalence of abusing prescription drugs is higher among service members than among civilians and is steadily increasing. In 2008, 11 percent of service members reported abusing prescription drugs, compared to 2 percent in 2002 and 4 percent in 2005. Opioid pain medications are the most commonly misused prescription drugs by veterans. Significant alcohol and tobacco abuse are also found among active military personnel and returning veterans.
Veterans commit suicide at double, and sometimes triple, the rates of civilian suicides, with rates varying by state. Between 2005 and 2011, almost 50,000 veterans took their own lives. Rates for veteran suicide for this same time period equal 30 for every 100,000 people as opposed to rates for civilian suicide which were 14 for every 100,000. The veteran suicide rate has grown annually at more than double the percentage of the civilian rate.
Access to qualified mental health professionals within and outside the system poses a problem to many, leaving veterans without care. They find themselves alone, dealing with the devastating consequences of conditions in which early interventions are critical.
While mental illnesses are a major concern in the veteran population, they are not the only barrier to a higher quality of life. Thousands of veterans see economic hardships upon their return. The transition from military to civilian life is often difficult. Military training and occupations are often not easily transferable to the daily workforce, making competition for employment strenuous. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that veterans leaving military services in the past decade have an unemployment rate of 12% compared to the 9% in the civilian population.
A lack of social support exacerbates all of these difficulties. Many veterans return to fractured family dynamics. Lack of family and community support add to the already debilitating burden these men and women carry upon their return.
Our responsibility to veterans extends beyond a somber speech, pat on the back, a tweet, or a status update. These are human beings with histories, thoughts, and emotions that matter just as much as yours do. Their efforts to defend our way of life allow us the luxury of turning our heads to their problems. As a result, the issues worsen.
So how can you help?
Identify the need in your community. Visit with veteran service providers for those who are homeless. Contact your mayor’s office for a list of providers, or search the NCHV database.
Recruit. If you are not already part of an organization, align yourself with a few other people who are interested in attacking veteran issues..
Volunteer at local agencies that provide services for veterans.
Make a donation to various veteran programs.
Contact your elected officials. Discuss what is being done in your community for veterans.
Support. Even if you can’t do any of the above, just lending an ear and a show of genuine warmth to a veteran can do a world of good.