Does the military need a mental health talk?

Healthcare | 15 Nov, 2015 |

In Arizona, the veteran suicide rate is triple the civilian suicide rate. Is there a solution?

John Ruocco was a father of two boys. A husband. A decorated Marine helicopter pilot. A student athlete.

His widow and current Chief External Relations Officer of Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, Kim Ruocco, described him as the “life of the party,” a friend to many, but suffered from depression after losing multiple friends in the Marines.

In 2005, Maj. Ruocco committed suicide while on leave in preparation for deployment to Iraq. He was scheduled for a mental health appointment the day he took his life.

“The culture was such that it was really difficult to get help. He never told anyone that he was suffering and needed help,” Kim Ruocco said. “When he came back from his deployment all of those things really built up to the point where he was really not okay.”

News21 reported that based on records from 48 states, one in every five suicides nationally is a veteran, and the suicide rate among veterans is nearly double the rate of suicide among civilians. They also reported that Arizona had a particularly high veteran suicide rate, with veteran suicide nearly tripling the civilian rate. In February, the Department of Veteran Affairs reported that 22 veterans take their own lives every day, but have said that the rate might be higher since California and Texas, the two states with the highest population rates, did not make their records available.

In April 2014, the Phoenix Veterans Health Administration was the key offender in a nationwide scandal, media outlets reported that more than 120,000 veterans did not receive care from hospital and that employees in charge of scheduling were providing false lists that did not accurately portray the waiting time. A Pew survey in 2014 revealed that the Department of Veteran Affairs had an approval rating of 52 percent, a sharp decline of 16 percentage points from 2013. Alexander Artus, a former Marine and current VA call center employee, said the scandal was a needed wake up call for Arizona, and an opportunity for Arizona Department of Veterans Affairs to make positive changes.

“The general disposition of the VA is hated right now because everyone is tired of getting the run around. People will call and be so grateful when they are talking to me just because they are talking to a live human instead of spending an hour with automated messages,” Artus said. “People are trying harder to please the general public, and the veteran population because they know what everyone thinks of the VA.”

As an employee at the call center, Artus said he regularly receives calls from suicidal veterans that he immediately transfers to the suicide hotline; he estimated that average one suicidal veteran a shift, but said there were days where he received four or more. However, for the combat veterans or veterans that qualified for trauma that were not in immediate danger seeking guidance or help with PTSD or depression, he suggested the Veteran Centers.

“They [Veteran Centers] are primarily a counseling service but they do a variety of things to get veterans involved with the community,” Artus said. “They go on camping trips, and I’ll get calls about how they can’t make the ski trip. There is such a strong camaraderie within the military, so being able to hang out with each other can be really helpful in getting through day-to-day life.”

As a former Marine himself, Artus said he understood the difficulties in returning to civilian life, especially if one lacks a support system. Artus reported that a significant problem with veterans is a tendency to avoid help, choosing instead to “soak in their misery.”

For family members who call seeking help providing assistance to former service members who aren’t ready or receptive, Artus recommends a newer program called “Coaching into Care,” or CIC. This program was originally piloted in Philadelphia in 2010, and when it was found to be successful, expanded nationally in 2011.

Lance Whitford, former VA Prescott employee, Air Force veteran and founder of new outreach program “Vets2Work,” has made it his mission to help veterans get back into the workforce.

He started a project called the 30/30 campaign, which has Whitford completing 30 different jobs, from helping bake gourmet granola to landscaping, in 30 days to raise money for veterans to go back to work. He originally started a program called “Prescott Vets Helping Vets,” but the service project ended before it could take off after Whitford’s good friend, and fellow veteran died in 2013. Whitford said they still don’t know if it was suicide or overdosed and he was touched by that.

“I don’t know what I could have done differently in his life, but if I could have had a full time job for him to go to, I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t have happened,” Whitford said.

He also said that readjustment for service members coming out of the military is difficult because they are not properly equipped to come back into civilian life. He said he believes that individuals within the military should receive training on how to be employable after ones military career is over, and on the differences in culture.

“There is a minimum of six weeks for basic training coming into the military. These soldiers should have basic training coming out of the military to learn how to be a civilian,” Whitford said. 

Although there are many different resources for veterans suffering from the effects of war, Ruocco said she believes the greatest challenge for service members is overcoming the stigma within the military that if you ask for help, you will be perceived as weak.

As a nation, we have undoubtedly progressed from the days where Lieutenant General George Patton slapped PTSD suffering soldiers; Ruocco said she thinks that attitude hasn’t completely gone away.

She said that soldiers are afraid that if they report early signs of mental health issues, it will negatively impact their career. Such was the case with her late husband, who she said initially refused counseling in fear that he would not have security clearance to fly. These fears are not entirely unfounded, Ruocco said.

“There is a real aspect to it. There ARE times when it can negatively impact your career. There are pilot jobs, and other like minded jobs where if you have a certain diagnosis or are on certain types of medications, you can’t receive security clearance and you cannot fly,” Ruocco said. “But if you go get treatment at the early stages, when you first start to get flashbacks or sleeplessness, and you get help, it isn’t an issue.”

Now, through her work with TAPS, Ruocco is the ear who listens to the grief of spouses and other family members left behind. Through her own experience she is able to give comfort. She said family members are often plagued with feelings of guilt and shame that they were not able to save the one they love. This process is only the more difficult for surviving members of the families of service members because there is such an emphasis on honoring the deaths of soldiers killed in action.

“In the military, there is so much focus on how one dies. There’s memorials, medals, and pride over these individuals who have this heroic death,” Ruocco said. “When it’s a suicide, there’s this fear that everyone will remember them for how they died – and not how they served and lived.”

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