A recent report finds that suicide among active duty military has increased during the past five years.
The report released in September by the U.S. Department of Defense finds that while military suicide rates had generally been lower than the national average of 32 per 100,000 people, military suicide rates have increased and are now more or less the same as the national average.
This report also found an increase in suicide rates among family members of service men and women also the first time.
“As a society, we do a poor job of thinking about the social factors that give rise to depression or anxiety,” said Raul Perez, assistant professor of sociology. “For instance, how might social isolation, alienation, or loneliness/trauma, abuse, or exploitation/ or the hardships that come from living in conditions of poverty and violence contribute to poor mental health? These social issues, which contribute to depression and anxiety on their own, can become amplified for active-duty soldiers and military veterans.”
The causes for suicide cannot be traced to one specific factor, according to the DOD report.
Serving in the military, however, can change a person’s world view or perspective, and it can leading to stress and anxiety, according to experts.
“The purpose of boot camp is to prepare recruits, psychologically and physically, for combat, which means to be prepared to ‘kill the enemy,’’’ Perez said. “Outside of the military and law enforcement, most other occupations do not train and prepare a person to be ready to use violence or take another person’s life.”
Adjunct Professor of Sociology Dan Keenan, a Vietnam vet, opposes all war. He believes that killing is unnatural and young people shouldn’t be expected to shut off their emotions and be assigned to commit murder.
“We have this thing in the country, you know, where the military is glorified, glamorized,” Kennan said. It’s romanticized, and so many young men and some young women get indoctrinated into ‘that’s how you prove you’re tough, prove you’re a man, a real macho, you can’t show emotion’,” Kennan said. “You have to be tough, whatever happens and you just shrug it off … It creates a real weird thing because you’re in a situation where you get more feelings than you’ve ever had before but you’re forced to not show them.”
The way in which the media portrays service men and women can also be a factor outside of the military that leads to the devaluation of what they have actually accomplished, James Garcia, professor of psychology, said.
“It is important to treat veterans like people that could be successful in life,” Garcia said. “Media sometimes provides an environment that creates shame, stigma, and does not allow folks to thrive.”
Garcia said that if there are repeated ads targeting veterans, and they are portrayed as having PTSD or a low standard of health, either mental or physical, they will soon be finding themselves questioning their own legitimacy of being veterans. He added that the repetition of the same message that all veterans have PTSD or act a certain way in our culture is ingrained in media, which a can affect their self perception.
“The military is a place that has been male dominated and so they are given the power,” Garcia said. “Even within gay servicemen, it was thought they could compromise the platoon because of their sexual preferences, when that is also irrational.”
“(Veterans) don’t like to feel like there is something wrong, they sometimes don’t say anything to avoid being discharged, but even after they are discharged some of that mentality sticks, ” said Diana Towles, veteran and coordinator of the Center for Veteran Student Success.
Sharon Davis, professor of sociology, recalled having her former students, who were also veterans, panhandling because they could not control their inner demons. Those experiences prevented them from having a normal lifestyle, she said.
“A guy called me just the other night and I said ‘hey how are you doing’ and he said ‘I need you to talk me out of killing myself,’” Kennan said. “So I hooked him up with somebody … to drive over and talk to him.He had a lot of reasons to kill himself and they all made sense.The disillusionment, the feeling of betrayal… I understand it.”
University of La Verne veteran students now have the veteran center available to them for help or support as well as the health center and CAPS.
There is also a 24-hour veteran crisis hotline in California. The number is 888-969-0530.
Liliana Castañeda can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.