MainlySocialWork: Memorial Day

25 May

Note: The musings on this blog will, generally speaking, be about running and other physical well-being topics.  However, as a social worker and aspiring change agent, I will occasionally use this space to discuss relevant and topical social issues. These posts will be identified with MainlySocialWork in the post title.

As with all holidays, the start of Memorial Day brought with it social media postings to queue up the celebrations. Yesterday my dad posted a picture on Facebook of a woman weeping at (I’m assuming) her husband’s grave. The subtext of the photo was “Memorial Day: In case you thought it was national BBQ day.” It got me thinking. This weekend your Facebook newsfeeds and Twitter pages will fill with messages of “Support our troops” and “If you love freedom, thank a vet,” but what does that really mean?

This coming year I will be doing my social work field placement at Project HOME, a non-profit organization in Philadelphia that fights homelessness. I have been placed at a recovery house that provides transitional housing for homeless men with a primary diagnosis of substance abuse. Of the 24 beds in the residence, 12 are reserved for homeless veterans with drug or alcohol abuse issues.  The fact that half of the beds in this facility are reserved for homeless vets highlights two significant issues that our veterans face: high rates of homelessness, and high rates of substance abuse.

According to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans roughly 13% of America’s homeless population are veterans. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates that on any given night more than 62,000 veterans do not have a place to call home. It is also believed that another 1.4 million veterans are at-risk of becoming homeless. Some of the reasons that homelessness is prevalent among our vets are poverty, lack of social networks, dismal living conditions, substance abuse, and mental health issues [1].

Substance abuse issues among active military and returning veterans have been on the rise. A recent study screened Army soldiers 3-4 months after returning from deployment to Iraq. The study found that 27% of soldiers surveyed met criteria for alcohol abuse [2]. Drug and alcohol abuse often accompanies other mental health disorders. In a society where mental health disorders are still stigmatized it is common to self-medicate with illicit drugs rather than seek formal mental health treatment.

Current standards for mental health evaluations for active military require screenings 6 months before deployment and three times after deployment. As protocol currently stands, mental health screenings are not required while in-theater [3]. A new defense bill proposed for 2014 will, in addition to the screenings already in place, require mental health screenings every six months for deployed troops. Rep. Andre Carson (D-Ind.) originally sponsored the Military Mental Health Empowerment Act because, “We are quick to diagnose and treat service members who are injured in combat, with medics rushing to those who are struck by enemy IEDs or gunfire, but when it comes to the mental health challenges placed on our service members, we abandon them through months of deployment to deal with post traumatic stress disorder, depression and suicidal thoughts” [3].

These suicidal thoughts are important to note. When we think of the soldiers that we lose each year we readily call to mind those who’s lives are taken at the hand of the enemy. What doesn’t quickly come to mind are those who take their own lives. In 2012 more soldiers committed suicide than died in combat. We lost 1 active military member to suicide every 17 hours in 2012 [4]. In 2013, the trend is continuing, from January to April of this year we lost 161 active-duty troops, reservists and National Guard members to suicide, or one every 18 hours [5].

So this Memorial Day, I ask you to remember the messages “Support our troops” and “If you love freedom, thank a vet.” But I also ask you to remember that supporting our troops and thank vets does not just mean going to a parade to remember those who have fallen, or putting the American flag in your front yard. It also means questioning the status quo and lobbying for better care of our active service personnel and providing better access to support and care for those who have already come home. As another article put it, this Memorial Day “after you thank a veteran, also ask ‘how are you doing?’” [6].

These are the men and women who fight for our country, who protect our land, and provide for our freedom. They willingly offer up their lives to protect ours. They do not deserve to live on the street; they do not deserve to suffer in silence.

If this message resonates with you please pass it on. We need to get the word out, and what better time to do so than Memorial Day?

References:

1. http://nchv.org/index.php/news/media/background_and_statistics/

2. http://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/topics-in-brief/substance-abuse-among-military-veterans-their-families

3. http://www.militarytimes.com/article/20130524/BENEFITS06/305240024/Bill-would-require-mental-health-checkup-every-6-months-deployed-troops

4. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/16/us/baffling-rise-in-suicides-plagues-us-military.html?pagewanted=all&_r=1&

5. http://usnews.nbcnews.com/_news/2013/05/23/18447439-one-every-18-hours-military-suicide-rate-still-high-despite-hard-fight-to-stem-deaths?lite

6. http://www.militarymentalhealth.org/blog/2012/05/this-memorial-day-ask-a-vet-how-are-you/

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3 Responses to “MainlySocialWork: Memorial Day”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Well Hello! | Random Hannah! - May 25, 2013

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    […] and I stole away to Boston over Memorial Day weekend (to read my post on Memorial Day check out: MainlySocialWork: Memorial Day). As I had never been to Boston I had no idea what I would want to do when we got there… other […]

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