Dallas Morning News: For veterans, holidays shed light on enduring fight against suicide
Updated: Jan 18
All of us have a role to play in supporting vets.
This op-ed originally appeared in the Dallas Morning News.
For many, holidays mean spending time with family and attending joyous gatherings. For others, they can be a poignant reminder of a loved one lost. A survey from last year’s holiday season found that for 3 in 5 Americans, the holidays had a negative impact on their mental health. For veterans, these feelings can be even more pronounced. In a season that can be a reminder of pain and loss, it is essential to let our veterans know that there is a community to support them should they need it.
For our servicemen and service women who might be experiencing residual stress and depression, the pressure of the holidays can come as a burden. I know. Following my deployment to Afghanistan, I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress (PTS). After being honorably discharged, it took time and support to process my experiences and adjust to a new normal. Medicine and therapy were just temporary fixes. Without support and not knowing how to access the available resources, coping became more and more difficult. And my story is only one among many.
More than 2.6 million U.S. military personnel have become veterans, with nearly half reporting that they have experienced mental health conditions, including PTS, substance use, depression and grief. The impact of isolation, stress and factors like economic insecurity can have grave implications for former service members. In fact, the veteran suicide rate has increased over the last 10 years and remains almost twice as high as that of their civilian peers.
The transition from the military to the civilian world can be challenging at any time of the year. Dealing with unemployment, relationship stress, lack of purpose, acute financial concern, substance abuse, etc., are all a part of the human condition that can be exacerbated by service-related issues. While there are support structures in place, not all veterans know of or utilize the full extent of their resources. Or if they do, there still may be gaps in the services provided and the services needed.
A 2019 survey by the Pew Research Center found veterans had mixed feelings about the Department of Veterans Affairs: 9% said the department was doing an excellent job meeting the needs of military veterans; 37% said the VA was doing a good job. About half said it was doing only a fair (37%) or poor (15%) job. At my organization, Mission Roll Call, we found that 88% of veterans were dissatisfied with the mental health services provided by the VA.
We must do better to support our veterans. Each of us has a part to play in this.
A quick phone call or text offering to check in may seem simple but can have a significant impact. After the Afghanistan withdrawal last year, a number of old friends and acquaintances reached out to tell me they were thinking of me and praying for me. These simple acts of support spoke volumes. An “I’m thinking about you” or “I care about you” can remind someone that they are not alone.
If you do not know any veterans personally, there are still a number of initiatives that allow you to show them your support. This year, Mission Roll Call gave members of Congress, their staffs and the general public the opportunity to write cards to veterans who are spending their holidays in a VA hospital. Initiatives like these can show veterans that we recognize their sacrifice and service for our country.
The holidays are a great time to acknowledge our veterans’ need for accessible resources and ongoing community support, but the effort is needed year-round. We need a more proactive approach to suicide prevention and the residual effects of service. On a granular level, the support of family and friends during this time is crucial. Check-in on your service men and women. Listen to them, lean into them, and pay attention to any change in behavior. Simply reminding them how important they are can make a big difference. They fought for us — now it’s time we fight for them.
Dallas-Fort Worth native Cole Lyle is the executive director of Mission Roll Call, former policy adviser in the U.S. Senate and U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, and combat veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps. He wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.