Vet Who Survived Suicide Attempt Shares Keys to Recovery

By Shannon Collins
DoD News, Defense Media Activity

September is Suicide Prevention Month. As Dr. Keita Franklin, director of the Defense Suicide Prevention Office, said, “Every suicide is a tragic loss to our nation and those impacted. The family and friends left behind who must deal with the aftermath of the event and put those events in perspective may, in some cases, never know why the service member or veteran took their life.” Suicide Prevention 2014 v2

Suicide can have a ripple effect. My father served in the Air Force briefly. When he got out, his second wife took her life with a shotgun. He never recovered and used the same weapon when I was five. According to studies done at Johns Hopkins Hospital, children from parents who commit suicide are more likely to die by suicide themselves and are more likely to develop psychiatric disorders. In the United States, between 7,000 and 12,000 children lose a parent to suicide, researchers estimate.

Organizations like the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, or TAPS, offers care for those grieving the death of a loved one who served in the armed forces, whether they died from suicide or from combat.

The Struggle Begins

When I first joined the Air Force as an enlisted public affairs specialist, I got into trouble for giving alcohol to minors at my technical training school. I felt so guilty that I had put all of our careers in jeopardy that I overdosed on prescription medication and alcohol. Fortunately, I was forced to drink charcoal, and I lived. I felt God must have a purpose for me because I lived through the experience.

There are many who get into trouble in the military and feel that they can’t get out of their situation, that suicide may be the only way, but I’m telling you from personal experience, you just have to get through each day. I was able to bounce back and not only earn my stripes back but earn my commission as an officer. Yes, I had to work hard to prove myself, but I did it.

Another Test

I was tested again almost nine years later when I was sexually assaulted for the second time in my life. I ended up with post-traumatic stress disorder from it and gained 50 pounds within a year. My work performance went down, and my supervisors didn’t help me find the resources I needed, such as a sexual assault response coordinator. Being an officer, I was afraid of the perception of going to mental health, but I started to go anyways and started getting the help I needed. While getting treatment, I was forced out of the Air Force with the reduction in force.

Military Suicide & Mental Health Stats

The Defense Department reported there were 265 active-duty suicides last year. By contrast, from 2001 through 2007, suicides never exceeded 197. The National Alliance on Mental Illness says nearly one in four active-duty members showed signs of a mental health condition in a 2014 study in JAMA Psychiatry. Some of these were PTSD, depression and traumatic brain injuries. According to a 2006 study in Military Medicine, 97 percent of service members who sought mental health treatment didn’t experience any negative career impact. The same study showed it’s risky to ignore a mental health condition. If it worsens, a commanding officer can require a mental health evaluation, which is more damaging to your career. Among people who had command-directed evaluations, 39 percent had negative career impact.

When seeking mental health care, the care provider will inform you that the Defense Department follows privacy guidelines set down by HIPAA and the Privacy Act. These guidelines ensure the privacy of mental health records.

The Department of Veterans Affairs stated that in 2014, an average of 20 veterans died from suicide each day. I know when I first got out of the Air Force, I felt lost and depressed, like my life was over. My career was everything to me. But I found a way to do what I did in the military in the civilian workforce, I lost most of the weight I gained in the military through running, and I participated in nonprofit organizations to maintain accountability with other veterans.

Keys to Survival

The key is communication with each other, being there for each other. Know the warning signs: Feelings of hopeless, agitation, being quick to anger, participating in risky behavior, giving into addictive behaviors like drugs or alcohol, and withdrawing from family and friends.

If you need help or know someone who needs help, please use the resources available such as the Military/Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255, or text 838255.

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