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This weekend we observe Memorial Day, a time to honor fallen Americans who have died during military service. With that in mind, I wanted to focus this week on something related to this important occasion.
I hate to say it but to write this article I had to perform a Google Search of “Memorial Day” and read from a few different sources (Wikipedia, USMemorialDay.org and the VA website) about the purpose and history of the holiday.
I have some idea from the title of the holiday that it has something to do with honoring our dead but, honestly, I think of it much more as the three day weekend which marks the unofficial start of summer than any sort of solemn occasion to honor friends, family, and loved ones who have died in service to our country.
In refreshing my memory, I was surprised to re-learn that the holiday began in response to the Civil War and the great number of dead who were scattered about the nation as a result of the war. It began as “Decoration Day” when people would go and decorate the graves of their loved ones, neighbors, and sometimes even strangers, who’d been killed during the War.
Today, Memorial Day weekend is when people tend to open their beach houses, fill the pool, get out the lawn furniture and perhaps have the initial cookout of the summer season. Oh and there are sales – lots of sales. Our three day weekend holidays have become strongly associated with bargains and blow outs. “Forget about the dead” we’re told, and instead “do your real civic duty – shop!”
Distraction and commercialization aside, I believe Memorial Day gives us much to reflect upon, especially as mental health advocates.
War is deeply and powerfully traumatic. Regardless of which side of the conflict one finds herself, the violence and stress of warfare always takes its toll, on soldiers and civilians alike. Those who are spared the grief of losing their loved one to Death in combat may still have to cope with the grief of “losing” their loved one to mental illness. They must become acquainted with this “new person” and may have to work through some unexpected and unplanned conflict and hardships.
Soldiers return home shell shocked with Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), anxiety and depression. Parents, spouses, siblings and children of soldiers deal with the damaging effects these illnesses have on their loved ones. Friends, coworkers and community members may have to adjust to a veteran’s altered behaviors or personality. Deeply troubling are the sobering statistics from the Veteran’s Administration (VA) which show veterans have anywhere from a 41 – 61% higher risk of suicide than their civilian counterparts.
Needless to say, war has a statistically significant negative impact on the mental health of individuals, communities and our entire nation. That being said, it is to be expected that hand-in-hand with the billions of dollars we spend to maintain our massive military presence around the globe that we would also be spending top dollar on services for veterans and their families so that they survive not only on the battlefield but on the home front as well.
Unfortunately, this simply is not the case. Nationally the VA has been plagued by scandals and bad press in recent years. In 2014, veterans were having to wait months for appointments – some dying before they were ever seen. And then more recently, just this week in fact, the VA Secretary made headlines when he downplayed the importance of access to care, comparing waiting in line at the VA like waiting in line at Disneyland.
And the Feds aren’t the only ones at fault. Locally, the State of Connecticut announced last month that they had cut funding for a DMHAS initiative called the Military Support Program (MSP), which connected veterans who’d served since 9/11 (and their loved ones) to clinical care. This program was one of the first to be cut as part of the new “economic reality” the Governor keeps underscoring. It was not until last week that they were able to somehow find funding to sustain the program, no doubt due to pressure from state residents who were disgusted by the mistreatment of veterans as a result of the state’s financial mismanagement.
As mental health advocates we have an obligation to fight for veterans and their right to treatment. I would also say that we also have an obligation to fight against the root causes of this illness by being strong anti-war advocates. If it weren’t for the wars, many of these soldiers and their families would not be facing the hardships they are. How many of us have family stories of grandparents, uncles or cousins who were deployed during WWII, only to return broken in some fashion? And civilians suffer these ill effects as well, as demonstrated by the survivors of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or the descendants of European Jews who were held in the Nazi concentration camps. More than 70 years later, we are still trying to heal emotional and psychological wounds which those conflicts inflicted upon people around the globe.
It is outrageous that something as essential as mental health services are one of the first items to be cut when it’s time to tighten our belts as a community. What I find even more offensive is that of all the programs to be cut, they would have the audacity to start with the veterans? These are the people who put their lives on the line for the rest of us – literally – so that we might be able to live free! And how do we repay them? By distracting ourselves from the fact that we are still a nation at war? By remaining silent and failing to organize a strong anti-war movement? By inhibiting veterans’ access to treatment which may be essential to relieving them of the symptoms that are a direct result of the war they fought in and we paid for? That, my dear readers, is the definition of insanity.
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