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A Memorial Day Mental Reminder

May 29, 2012
by H. Steven Moffic, MD
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The epidemic of veteran suicides continues . . . will there be progress by next Memorial Day?

I don’t know how this got started, but it is a credit to our humanity that we were able to know that it was important to have regular holidays, birthdays, and anniversaries. They remind us of things that are important in our lives and in society. Not that those reminders are always pleasant. Sometimes they remind us of horrible losses and trauma.

Take Memorial Day, coming soon again. It has come to commemorate our soldiers who have died in military service. For the day to be truly memorable, we have to feel some solemn sadness.

Last year at this time I wrote a blog here called “A Memorial Day for mental illness in the military”. I called for ways to redress the rising PTSD in our soldiers in the “War on Terror”, the terrible numbers of suicides, and the inadequate services for help, even after 10 years. In the intervening year, my wife and I visited the new 9/11 memorial in New York. Very moving. The waters draining at different levels into the abyss of the holes left by the towers, coupled by the names of those lost, were a stark symbolic reminder of life and its tragic losses, including those who will risk their lives for others.

 Now, I didn’t think that last year’s blog would change anything, did I? Well, it hasn’t. Former marine Anthony Swofford just wrote in the May 28thissue of Newsweek (and, of course, May 28this indeed Memorial Day this year) that “All Across America Veterans Are Committing Suicide at Unprecedented Rates, . . .” The number of suicides exceeds those lost in combat in Afghanistan and Iraq. Now, more Crisis Hotlines and “Selling Hope” is the newest hope to end this surge. Will it work?

Many people are surprised by this. Aren’t these soldiers the tough guys (and women)? The same surprise seemed to emerge when famous former football players like Junior Seau committed suicide unexpectedy. Tough on the outside, but hidden trouble inside. Behooves all of us to recognize that possibility in our neighbors.

This year is a Presidential election year. No matter what else you think of the current administration, this tragedy is continuing under its watch. What are our ethical obligations to respond to this crisis as professionals beyond our everyday work with patients? As citizens with special knowledge? Do we need an Occupy Military Mental Health movement? As the wife of Willy Loman, who committed suicide in the classic play Death of a Salesman (which my wife and I had the good fortune to see recently on Broadway) exclaimed: “Attention must be paid!”



I don't want to say that I'm prophetic in any way, but the numbers came out (after Memorial Day, for some reason). The headline in my Milaukee Journal Sentinel recently was "Suicides surge in U.S. Military: Increases catches some off-guard; numbers top Afghanistan combat deaths".

Now the troops are to be withdrawn in two years. And we know PTSD symptoms can be delayed. So we have 2 years to make this better. I'm not optimistic, though.

H. Steven Moffic

H. Steven Moffic

H. Steven Moffic, M.D. retired from the clinical practice of psychiatry and his tenured...

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