by Lisa Petersen
Director of Clinical Services, Stop Soldier Suicide
We’ve all heard the stories. Some of us have lived through them.
“I didn't know they were that bad”
“I wish I would have known”
“They were just gone, without any sign or symptom, that would make me think they would kill themselves”
“If we had just gotten them in treatment or seeing a counselor”
Diving into the complicated epidemic of suicide affecting the military community, it's time we talk about trauma.
Government committees, Fortune 500 companies, and NPOs like us have formed on the very thought that “We have to solve the problem.” However, I find that the more conversations I have, the more people don’t actually believe that this is a solvable problem … and really, they often don’t understand the problem itself.
First, we have to start thinking about the issue differently.
Suicide is not the problem, it’s the symptom.
Suicide presents itself as a symptom of trauma. Often when working with individuals who have endured trauma after trauma, clinicians must work through that person’s history of events. Traumatic events are known to change someone's life in a wide variety of ways; when the nervous system had its buttons pushed, each person’s trauma and how the body's response is unique.
For some individuals, it is one traumatic event and for others, there are many over time. Each person’s body will process and withstand trauma differently. This is key to unpack and must be learned with each client.
Our clinicians learn past history, including triggers, help process said trauma, and ultimately pave a path to recovery and reset while knowing each traumatic event is presenting a wide variety of symptoms in our patients.
Please don’t misunderstand my words. These events, while I call them a symptom, are painful and can be debilitating to a degree that causes suicidal behavior. I simply want to draw attention to the fact that suicide didn't start as a person's problem. The traumatic event did.
This failure to address the trauma properly, at the correct time, with appropriate responses, lead to this ideation, behavior, and eventual attempts. The trauma is often exacerbated by our society and health care system, the person’s support network, and so on.
None of us are immune to feeling pain. If something is hurt, we fix it. Furthermore, we send them to specialists, if it’s a complicated break. We don't just cast without an x-ray, do we? We collect the patient's history, learn about the event, and come up with a plan to heal.
To think of mental health as any different would be absurd. We can’t simply prescribe 8 sessions of non-tailored therapy with an anti-depression prescription, and say “problem solved.”
So what is the problem? The problem starts with the way the general healthcare system thinks about the topic of trauma.
There is very little educational content in graduate mental health programs; going so far even as therapeutic modalities formed on the idea that trauma was simply in the past, and we have to move on, with no impact on the future. These approaches aren't wrong; it’s true we can't change what happened, but we can change the effect that trauma has on our bodies.
So, how do we make a difference in the long term?
We have to start with psycho-education, there is no way around it. We must begin to address trauma for all the ways it can impact an individual. We should be educating our graduate students in social work, counseling, and psychology, that the symptoms we see are all based on trapped trauma in the body.
Pain that has no origin, routine labs, hearing “I just keep a headache and stomach issue.” These are not to be normalized.
If trauma remains unaddressed & the root of the problem goes unnoticed, we are only treating symptoms. Trauma causes our nervous systems to get out of rhythm.
As we work tirelessly against military suicide, I want you to know that trauma can affect you in unexpected ways. It’s important to take care of yourself & find providers to deal with your pain accordingly.
Read more about military service & trauma in a recent Military.com piece How Trauma Before Service is Shaping a Generation of Troops