Championing Mental Wellness for Those Who Champion Our Freedom
A blog by James Conforti, COO Sutter Health, and John Boyd, PsyD, CEO Sutter Health Mental Health & Addiction Care
On Veterans Day, we honor all of the incredible people, those living and those who are not, for their service to our country. While we should honor these men and women every day, today we pay tribute to their commitments and thank their families, too. We also acknowledge their sacrifices—many that came at a great price.
For veterans and their families, their sacrifices can often result in increased mental health challenges, addiction and suicide. The National Council for Behavioral Health notes that less than half of returning veterans in need of mental health treatment receive needed support and care. In addition, the Council reports 30% of active duty and reserve military personnel deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan—about 730,000 men and women—have a mental health condition such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or major depression that requires treatment. The Veterans Administration reports that 22 veterans die by suicide every day. And the impact extends beyond veterans to their families, with longer deployment lengths associated with more emotional challenges among military children and more mental health challenges among partners.
We know this first-hand.
James served in the U.S. Army for several years as did his father and his brother. Combined, they have almost 50 years of service. He remains connected to his comrades to this day in a forever cemented bond and is connected to many more through his healthcare role. Whether assisting those who support our homeless veterans or helping address the mental health challenges they face, he sees firsthand the lasting impact of their service to our great country. Many veterans transition into civilian life smoothly. Unfortunately, there are many more who struggle not only with the transition out of military service but the lasting effects of their service.
John has worked with veterans in clinical settings. He also has the firsthand experience of losing his cousin, Wes, who served three tours of duty in the Marines in Iran and Afghanistan. The loss did not happen while on duty, but after Wes’ attempts to return back to civilian life.
Prior to serving, Wes was an ambitious young man who was already a homeowner. On tour, he saw many heart-wrenching scenes, including witnessing the death of a fellow Marine. Following his time in the military, he was met with little formal support to transition back into civilian life. With limited access to mental health care and addiction prevention, he became addicted to opioids. Eventually, the addiction progressed to heroin. Wes lived with John and his partner for a significant period of time. He was in and out of treatment centers, all private, due to his challenges accessing veterans’ services. Despite much love, energy and expense, Wes and his family paid the ultimate price when his addiction led to his death at age 32.
While some steps are improving support to veterans, there is so much more that must be done. We must continue to advocate for increased mental health support, including addiction care, intervention and suicide-prevention services. We must be mindful when we thank our veterans for their service that many carry a lasting moral injury from the actions they had to take while on tour or in war. We must all come together—healthcare experts, business leaders, faith communities, veterans’ advocates, families—to be fully present for veterans as they return to civilian life. That means genuinely and warmly welcoming veterans back, giving them the care and support they deserve, and opening doors to social connection and employment.
There is no shame in the pursuit of mental wellness for these champions of our freedom—or for any one of us. Mental health is human health, after all, and we are all human.
Please join us in pausing today to honor our veterans—whether they are known or unknown to you. We hope that, when you do, you think about the spirit of their sacrifices and remember their shared commitment to peace. We hope you will also consider giving back to those who served us all.
• US Department of Veterans Affairs has a hotline at 1-855-948-2311.
• National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. Or, you can connect with a trained crisis counselor through the Crisis Text Line by texting 741741.
• Cohen Veterans Network, a Veterans Crisis Line is available at 1-800-273-8255, Press 1.
• PsychArmor, online training to support military service members, veterans and their families.