No Purple Heart for the Invisible Wounds of Mental Illness
Advocacy In the U.S., an estimated 22 veterans die by suicide every day. So why are so few veterans and service members receiving treatment for mental health problems?
Returning home from deployment in Afghanistan with the 82nd Airborne Division of the United States Army should have been an exciting new chapter in the life of Specialist Tousha Barnes.
“I presumed I’d find a job really quick and move forward with my life,” says Barnes. “I was looking forward to moving back to my small town and resuming my role as a wife and, later, a mom.”
One night, Barnes awoke to the sound of a tornado siren.
“I woke up immediately in the mindset of, ‘Grab your gun and join your company,’” she recalls. “It was the same sound I would hear when we were under mortar fire.”
“When soldiers come back to civilian life, we have to retrain our thinking. We have to learn that there is strength in reaching out for help with our mental health.”
Instead of a fresh start, Barnes struggled with unemployment as symptoms of depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) soon developed.
Thousands of American veterans live with PTSD. Countless more struggle with anxiety or depression.
What made the difference for Tousha Barnes? After a close friend recognized the signs and intervened, she eventually found effective treatment and peer support, which put her on the path to recovery.
The Veterans Administration estimates 22 veterans die by suicide every day. Roughly 30 percent of military personnel deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan have a mental health problem requiring treatment, yet less than 50 percent of them will receive the services they need.
Strength in seeking help
Military service fosters resilience in soldiers and their families, but that sense of resilience is often the very thing that stops members of the military community from seeking help.
“When soldiers come back to civilian life, we have to retrain our thinking,” says Barnes. “We have to learn that there is strength in reaching out for help with our mental health.”
Peer support is especially valuable to service members, veterans and their families living with mental illness. Just being able to talk to someone who understands can be crucial.
“You can’t ever be the person you once were when you’ve seen war,” says Barnes. Knowledge, coupled with support, drastically improves outcomes for the hundreds of thousands of men and women in uniform who return from war with emotional scars.
“You never know when you’re going to come across a veteran or family member in need,” says Barnes. “And you can’t be afraid to reach out and offer help.”