Humans of New York Takes on Veteran Mental Health

How a little attention from a big blog can make a difference

Posted Sep 08, 2016

“I realized that there’d soon be a point in time when we’d lost more Marines to suicide than to enemy action.”

This truth isn’t new.

But, it’s getting a lot of new attention as Humans of New York (HONY), the popular blog followed by millions on Facebook and Instagram, features the Headstrong Project, an initiative to get veterans access to mental health treatment. Taking a holistic view, the Headstrong Project also organizes group activities, like kayaking and yoga, to connect veterans with each other for social support and provide a physical outlet for stress management.

The quote above is from Headstrong Project director Zach Iscol, a former Marine Corps officer. You can read Iscol’s story, along with those of other veterans and families of veterans, here.

The topic of veteran suicide is certainly covered by popular media, but it’s often in the wake of a tragedy and with a tone of resignation (see this recent New York Times piece as an example).

That kind of storytelling doesn’t do much to promote solutions, engage people in thinking about veterans’ lives, or show the nuance and complexity of navigating life with mental health challenges. It shows a growing readiness and ability to talk about veteran suicide, but doesn’t offer hope for building a good system for supporting veteran suicide prevention.

Despite decades of knowledge that more veterans die by suicide than in combat, we haven’t been able to garner the resources as a nation to support the true costs of supporting veteran mental health needs. The medical system run by the federal Veterans Administration is working hard, but the need outpaces the resources by miles.  

So, efforts that supplement those provided by the public are increasingly essential, both to continue to work against the stigma of seeking help and to increase or speed up veteran access to mental health services. The Headstrong Project is one of those efforts, focused on helping veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In just a few weeks, HONY founder Brandon Stanton raised 545% of his fundraising goal. That initial and ambitious $100,000 grew to over $545,000 to support the Headstrong Project getting veterans mental health treatment, as well as creating alternative ways for veterans to move toward a greater sense of mental well-being.

HONY hasn’t shied away from telling stories that are difficult to hear as a way of getting more people to pay attention to issues that can be hard to confront. (See HONY’s recent series on pediatric cancer.) The HONY feature on the Headstrong Project and veteran mental health drew many people into learning more about tough topics: the vulnerability of some of our nation’s strongest, the lasting impact of being a part of war, and the confusion faced by veterans as they return home as changed people.

During National Suicide Prevention Week, on this #TalkSavesThursday, it seems all the more important to say what needs to be said with the goal of getting more resources to a critically important issue.

Copyright 2016 Elana Premack Sandler, All Rights Reserved