Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has called on military leaders to explore a "epidemic" of suicide among active duty servicemembers and veterans. Each day, 18 veterans kill themselves according to the federal Department of Veterans Affairs. In Connecticut, 30 veterans have died this way since 2009, but those are only the suicides that the VA knows about.
WNPR's Lucy Nalpathanchil brings us the story of a former Army captain who has struggled with suicidal thoughts since returning from Afghanistan. He's sharing his story under a pseudonym because of fears that disclosing his mental health battles could harm his family and his job prospects.
Joe Simpson was born and raised in New York City. He joined the Army right after high school and made a career of it, rising to the rank of Captain in the Army Reserves by the time he was deployed to Afghanistan in 2009. He was assigned as a logistics officer near Kabul. This was his second tour in Afghanistan. "I mean I've been banged up over the years being in the infantry and jumping out of airplanes. but this last deployment was the most serious."
While there, he received a concussion after a blast from a suicide bomber threw him from his bed. He also dealt with anxiety after learning of an internal threat from a translator and then having to report his suspicions to military investigators. It was also tough for him being away from his wife and two young children for fifteen months.
Simpson says the stress felt like a coiled spring getting tighter and tighter inside him each day. "Always being on alert.never being able to relax. You know constantly having your life in danger." And even though he was serving overseas, bad news still came from home. First he and his wife divorced and then his mother died. Once he got home, Simpson says he began to decompress in negative ways. "Heavy drinking, some risk taking, some gambling. Having flashbacks. Severe depression where I was really considering suicide." He knows now that he was suffering from depression, PTSD and the effects of a traumatic brain injury. Back then, he remembers feeling emotionally numb. Loud noises set off panic attacks. "if it wasn't for my children I probably would have killed myself."
That's what led Simpson to seek emergency psychiatric help on four different occasions. Twice he's gone to West Haven's VA hospital which has an emergency room dedicated to psychiatric care. After a twelve hour wait, medical staff diagnosed him with depression and PTSD. Each time he was hospitalized, he stayed for a few days until his mental health stabilized. During those stays he spoke with psychiatrists and worked on managing his depression medication. But not every veteran who's suicidal just walks into a hospital.
Some know they have a problem but don't know what to do, others don't want to go to the VA or are unsure of their VA benefits. That's why the VA created a crisis hotline for veterans and their families. "It's hard for them to say 'I need help' its hard for them to say 'I'm not ok because I'm a soldier and I should be ok and I get through things. This is my job.' "
Maureen Pasko is the Suicide Prevention Coordinator at West Haven. When a local veteran calls the national hotline number and agrees to a follow up call, their info is routed to Connecticut and Pasko is the one they talk to. Pasko: "There's somebody who can chat with or talk with who will help you when you can't sleep or when you're having a nightmare without the pressure of having to come to the VA if you don't want to." Nationwide more than 400,000 calls have come into the crisis line since it was created in 2007.
But only a quarter of them accepted referrals into some type of care. Their hesitancy could be attributed to one of the biggest complaints of the VA, a backlog in the VBA or office handling benefits. Joe Simpson says the VA just recently approved his PTSD and TBI claims, 22 months after he first submitted the paperwork.
Dr Jan Kemp is the National Director for the VA's Suicide Prevention Program. "Demand for services is high. We're busy recruiting staff and getting more people on board to provide services but there are some wait times. And trying to juggle all of that to provide the right services to the right people..sort of an overwhelming responsibility but we're working on that." Kemp says the hiring initiative is an outcome of President Barack Obama's Executive Order to improve the VA.
Back at West Haven VA, the hospital is also undergoing renovations to the psychiatric emergency room and inpatient ward to expand the number of patient beds. Life for Army Veteran, Joe Simpson has been pretty stable in 2012. He's only had to admit himself to the hospital once and that was earlier this year. Part of what helps him is going to weekly group therapy with other Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans.
Simpson says his depression's also been helped by adding a new member to the family. He shows him off during a recent visit to his condo. "Come here pal. Ah-hmm. Yes, do the bellies,(Dog whining) I've got your belly. 'He's a Lhasa Apso, fuzzy little playful dog. And he's very good for my spirits. He's a bit of a chick magnet. The ladies come running across the parking lot to pet him and that cheers me up a bit!" Simpson hasn't succumbed to the suicidal thoughts that once plagued him daily because he made the decision to go to the hospital. Yet, he knows he's in the minority.
Stigma surrounding mental health issues like depression and PTSD keeps other veterans from getting help. That’s why Simpson wanted to tell his story. But stigma is also what’s keeping him from using his real name.
The number for the Veterans Crisis hotline is 1-800-273-8255. There's also a free chat service available at www.veteranscrisisline.net.