Newspapers across the nation this week reported an alarming fact: Military suicides outnumbered combat-related deaths in 2012. The Associated Press reported that the latest Pentagon numbers indicate a rate of nearly one suicide per day last year with 349 among active-duty troops while the number of Americans who died in the Afghanistan conflict in 2012 was 295 (15 fatalities also occurred outside Afghanistan). This represents an increase of 16% over 2011, when there were 301 active-duty suicides – and the number has been increasing steadily over recent years.
Red Flag Statistics
The following stats from www.iCausualties.org indicate a steady and frightening increase in military suicides over the past five years:
Year Combat deaths Suicides
2008 155 128
2009 317 211
2010 499 268
2011 418 301
2012 310 349
But This Is Just the Tip of the Iceberg
To compound this tragedy, a rarely discussed issue is the devastatingly high number of suicides among veterans (those who have completed their military service). According to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), one veteran takes his or her own life every 80 minutes. In other words, 18 veterans a day or 6,570 veterans every year commit suicide. And this number represents only the veterans who have registered with the VA, not those who are so disheartened with the government, that they've chosen not to register with the VA.
Why So Many Suicides?
It stands to reason that as troops are brought home, the number of combat deaths will steadily decrease. However, according to Brandon Friedman on www.nation.time.com, Military Suicides Top Combat Deaths – But Only Because the Wars are Ending. “The number of suicides will likely continue to rise for several years—even after troops leave Afghanistan—as many war veterans lose their sense of meaning and purpose.” Our work as a nation comprised of concerned citizens - families, friends and communities - is just beginning. There are many reasons for this high suicide rate: repeated deployments expose our soldiers to recurring dangers and also the horrors of war; recent murders of soldiers by Afghan troops, who we are training to take over when we leave, create high level of tension in home bases that should be places of security, and also paradoxically the lost exciting highs soldiers get from being with buddies in danger when they come home to what is now perceived as a benign, boring life style.
TBI and PTSD
Two of the most common injuries suffered by our troops are unseen – and frequently unreported - Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). An external force such as the concussive force or shock blast/wave of explosions causes TBI’s. Experiencing a traumatic and generally life-threatening event, with certain exceptions, causes PTSD. Both TBIs and PTSD share common symptoms - anxiety/panic attacks, depression, memory loss, problems with judgment, lack of concentration and pace, sleep disorders, restricted range of affect, avoidance, isolation and hyper-vigilance. However, those with TBI may also suffer from vertigo, poor coordination and chronic headaches. It’s estimated that between 150,000 and 300,000 soldiers and veterans suffer TBI and about 300,000 from PTSD due to the recent wars in the Middle East. When a soldier suffers from TBI, they frequently also suffer from PTSD.
Stuck in the Traumatic Past
The term post-trauma says it all: The trauma is in the past, but sufferers are unable to leave it behind and move on. They relive the event over and over—in nightmares that make sleep impossible, in flashbacks that have them time traveling back to a horrible past moment, and in recurrent negative thoughts that they cannot stop. This waking nightmare leaves them stuck in time, always running from the trauma and never able to escape its grip. As one of our veteran client’s said, ‘‘You leave the war, but the war doesn’t leave you.’’ It’s not surprising, then, that they are desperate to avoid anything in their present life that might remind them of the past trauma.
Loss of Hope = Loss of Future
People commit suicide for many reasons, but a loss of hope is at the core. They either can’t think about the future or they think the future holds nothing but more of the same misery; so they opt out of life. Most PTSD sufferers who seek help before acting on their suicidal thoughts are referred to traditional therapy models that take them back into the horror - revisiting the trauma they lived through - in the hope of desensitizing them to the event, or to base the present on the experiences of the past. This may mean dwelling in the past for anywhere from a few hours, to a few weeks or months, to literally years, looking at painful experiences and reliving them from a number of perspectives. This can feel like torture to the individual with PTSD and seems to be only partially effective as the rise in suicide rates indicates.
Hope for a Brighter Future
Time perspective therapy takes a very different route toward emotional and psychological recovery. We believe that a person’s potential is not limited by their past. We begin by airing out the trauma, giving that significant event the respect it deserves; but we do not dwell there. Instead, we go even further back, gathering positive strengths from the person’s past—finding the person he or she was before the trauma. Then we come back to the present, helping our client discover ways to enjoy each day as it comes. Finally, we proceed full tilt toward a balanced time perspective and a brighter future. In our work with veterans, we discovered the importance of peers and veterans bonding with buddies, as they did in the military. We incorporated this concept into our therapy with veterans as social meetings reinforce a sense of a brighter future.
The Time Cure
In our new book, The Time Cure, we explain how time perspective therapy was developed in part, based on our work with combat veterans suffering from chronic and severe PTSD. We are grateful – more than words can express – for the loyalty and devotion to our nation (and the world) shown by our active duty military and veterans. The Time Cure was written to help those suffering from PTSD as well as their loved ones – to gain a better understanding of PTSD and how its symtoms affect everyone, not just the PTSD sufferer. The Time Cure offers hope and a way to a brighter future.
Wishing you all the best,
Rose Sword and Phil Zimbardo
For more information on the effects of PTSD, see The Time Cure: Overcoming PTSD with the New Psychology of Time Perspective Therapy (Zimbardo, Sword & Sword, 2012, Wiley Publishing,) and for strategies to reduce stress and improve communication, visit www.timecure.com and www.lifehut.com.