Health News Digest

to be or not to be

September 11, 2017

To Be Or Not To Be—Military Version

By Michael D. Shaw

The famous soliloquy from Shakespeare’s Hamlet reflects the title character’s profound internal conflict. Is it better to simply end it all and enter the “undiscover’d country” of death, with its possible damnation; or should one continue to suffer the inevitable trials of life (“the sea of troubles,” “the slings and arrows,” “the heart-ache,” “the thousand natural shocks”). Hamlet chooses to persevere.

Unfortunately, some do not, and choose suicide. What better time to talk about this than National Suicide Prevention Week (September 10-16) and Suicide Prevention Awareness Month (all September).

Here are some sobering statistics:

  • Suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in the US
  • Each year 44,193 Americans die by suicide
  • For every suicide, there are 25 attempts
  • Suicide costs the US $51 billion annually

Sadly, things are much worse in the military. According to Dr. Kelly Posner Gerstenhaber, of Columbia University and the Columbia Lighthouse Project, “The suicide rate for our veterans and active duty is around 50% higher than for their civilian counterparts, showing what a serious issue we have on our hands. This group of people have a tremendous amount of stress and they need to know it’s not a sign of weakness to seek help. We have programs in place that have been successful at helping to reduce the suicide rates, and we want to expand those to help others around the nation.”

Gerstenhaber created the widely-used Columbia Suicide Severity Rating Scale (C-SSRS)—shown to be a critical tool in preventing suicide.

For the vets by themselves, the statistic is an astonishing 22 suicides per DAY.

Some say that the “22” figure is too low. Here’s a comment taken from an insider blog, posted by a Vietnam vet, active in veterans’ causes…”It’s not 22 a day, it is more like 80 a day, when including opiate and pharmaceutical overdose.” He adds, “The majority of those that die by suicide/drugs now from military backgrounds are older. Vets from ‘Nam or from Iraq/Afghanistan who are mainly drug depressed/overdosed. Counselors found that almost half of them had experienced some sort of traumatic event(s) before military service (car crash/beaten as a child/sexually abused/etc).”

Around a year ago, a story appeared in Military Times entitled “Suicides among military bomb techs at crisis level.” These bomb technicians—aka Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) techs—were popularized (if somewhat inaccurately) in the The Hurt Locker (2008), a winner of six Academy Awards, including Best Picture.

The Military Times piece is heartrending, and among other things indicates that survivor’s guilt plays no small part in EOD tech suicides. Listen to Nicole Motsek, executive director of the EOD Warrior Foundation

“Suicide is a major concern throughout the military and it is a special concern for the EOD Warrior Foundation. We are a small community; we have only 7,000 people on active duty. During some months, it has been every week that we have lost someone. There are so many people out there with the invisible wounds of war and they are a part of our EOD community. We cannot wait and hope they get help, we have to do something now to help them.” Motsek is married to an Army EOD technician who has had multiple combat deployments.

The Foundation notes that accurate data on EOD tech suicides is nearly impossible to obtain in part because it is often difficult to tell if someone died accidentally or intentionally, and also because there is not a good national tracking system. Motsek reminds us that the 22 per day statistic derives from VA figures, in which full reporting was only available from 20 states.

According to a recent press release, the Foundation is now working with Dr. Gerstenhaber, who also presented a paper at the August, 2017 Global Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) Symposium & Exhibition. We wish them much success.