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The Veteran Suicide Epidemic

Now that our troops are actually coming home from Iraq, many are killing themselves. Why?

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Walkers turned the taboo of suicide into a proverbial tattoo. They wore t-shirts honoring lost loved ones with iron-on images and messages. They proudly posted facebook status updates about their plans to walk that generated open discussions in cyberspace. Fundraising emails solicited not only cash but also caring comments from friends who shared their own stories of suicidality or loss. Numerous walkers described to me how the process of getting to the walk made them realize they were not alone in their loss or pain. In fact, 37,000 people in the US die by suicide every year, making it the 10 th leading cause of death, so most of us have loved ones who have either survived depression or escaped it through death.

“You have raised more than $2.3 million dollars tonight!” AFSP Executive Director Robert Gebbia declared during the closing ceremony at dawn. Each walker was required to raise $1,000, and clearly some went far beyond the minimum.

After hearing about the Susan G. Komen Foundation debacle with Planned Parenthood, and dubious reports about the Lance Armstrong Foundation, I was skeptical about where all this money would go. A sandwich board on the field at Fort Mason proclaimed, “AFSP’s management and fundraising costs are only 15% of expenses, 85% goes to programs.” So where is that 85% headed? Some goes to projects such as More Than Sad, which educates students about depression and teachers about suicide prevention. Most of it goes into research grants. A local AFSP board member explained to me that recently big pharmaceutical companies were prohibited by law from giving large sums of money to organizations such as AFSP. Visibly absent were any Prozac swag, Zoloft promotions or other bio-psychiatric propaganda aimed at propping up the pharmaceutical industry.

AFSP asserts that suicide can be prevented by “early recognition and treatment of depression and other psychiatric illnesses.” And while this is crucial, a mental health advocate I contacted asserted a slightly different perspective, “It’s not about preventing suicide; it's about giving people a reason to live.” The scientific approach of diagnosing the illness and prescribing a pill doesn’t do much for dealing with the root cause, which in the case of vets seems to be indisputably linked to the trauma of warfare.

Ethan McCord, the Army specialist whose PTSD, after seeing two bleeding children who died in a car bomb in Baghdad, became news in TIME two years ago, said, “The Army's attitude was, 'Let's give this guy drugs and hope they work because we're overbooked and don't have time to deal with it.’ If they had understood what I was going through, I think all of this could have been avoided.”

When I was in college on the Columbia University campus there was a visible stigma around talking about suicide, so fellow classmates and I founded Students Against Silence, a group to speak out about mental health issues and create artistic events, poetry slams, and performances to name the elephant and start healing together. Then I found the Icarus Project, a national project that seeks to re-envision the culture and language surrounding “mental illness.” The Icarus Project released a flyer on suicide that seeks to reframe suicidal thoughts as an opportunity for transformation:

“Sometimes wanting to kill yourself just means you don’t want to live the life you’re living. You can change your life with that power. What the hell – you were about to lose your whole life. Why not instead lose your school, job, pretenses, fears, adherence to society’s standards, shame. I have found some of my suicidal episodes to be strangely liberating in that way. I wouldn’t take back any of what made me who I am today.”

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