Washington – Dionne Williamson was emotionally numb after completing a tour in Afghanistan in 2013.
“I kind of lost myself somewhere,” said Williamson, a Navy lieutenant colonel who experienced disorientation, depression, memory loss, and chronic fatigue. “I went to the captain and said, ‘Captain, I need your help. Something is wrong.'”
When the Pentagon is about to face off Soaring suicide rate among military ranks, Williamson’s experience sheds light on the reality of military personnel seeking mental health help. And what comes next can be frustrating and discouraging.
Williamson, 46, eventually regained stability after a month-long hospitalization and a treatment program that included horse riding. But she had to fight for years to get the help she needed. “I wonder how I managed to do that,” she said.
In March, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin announced the creation of an independent commission to review the military’s mental health and suicide prevention programs.
Suicide among active duty military personnel increased by more than 40% between 2015 and 2020, according to Department of Defense data. In 2020 alone that number increased by 15%. Post long-standing suicide hotspots like Alaska, where military personnel and their families struggle with extreme isolation and harsh climates, suicide rates have doubled.
2021 Research by the Cost of War Project concluded that since 9/11, four times as many military and veterans have died by suicide as they have died in combat. This study details the stressors that are unique to military life. life. “
The Pentagon did not respond to repeated requests for comment. However, Austin has publicly acknowledged that the current mental health provision of the Pentagon, including the Defense Suicide Prevention Agency, established in 2011, is inadequate.
“It’s imperative that we continue to take care of all our teammates and reinforce that mental health and suicide prevention continue to be key priorities,” Austin said in March. “Clearly, we have more work to do.” there is.”
Last year, the Army issued commanding officers new guidelines on how to deal with mental health issues in rank. Complete with briefing slides and scriptsHowever, difficult long-term challenges remain. Many soldiers fear the stigma of acknowledging mental health issues within a self-sufficient military culture. I often find myself getting worse.
very similar to the problem of food insecurity among military familiesa network of military-adjacent charities sought to fill the gap with a variety of programs and outreach efforts.
Some are purely recreational, held for the purpose of providing servicemen with fresh air and socializing, such as the annual fishing competition held in Alaska. Some focus on self-care, like the Military Service YMCA program, which provides free childcare so military parents can attend therapy sessions.
The situation in Alaska is particularly dire. In January, after a series of suicides, Commander. Major Phil Blaisdell addressed the soldiers as follows: Impressive Instagram post“When was suicide the answer?” he asked. “If you have any questions, please DM me. Please …”
Senator Lisa Markowski (R-Alaska) said a deployment to Alaska was a dream for some military personnel, but a lonely nightmare for others that needed to be addressed. said.
“When you see statistics skyrocketing, you have to pay attention to this,” Murkowski said. “Now we’re all here. The Joint Chiefs of Staff are looking at Alaska and saying, ‘Holy smoke, what’s going on there?'”
The stress of a transfer in Alaska is exacerbated by the lack of on-site therapists. During a visit to Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Alaska earlier this year, Secretary of War Christine Wormuth said she was told by medical staff at the base that they were understaffed and burnt out, unable to see patients in a timely manner. I hear you. When soldiers ask for help, they often have to wait weeks.
“There are people who need our services and we can’t reach them,” a longtime counselor told Wormuth during a conference. We will continue to let soldiers die until we secure the
annual combat fishing tournament It was founded in Seward, Alaska, to “get kids out of the barracks, out of the base for the day, out of their heads.”
Launched in 2007 and currently attended by over 300 service members, the tournament features a day of deep-sea fishing and celebrations with prizes for the biggest catches, the smallest catches and the sickest. includes meetings.
“I think there’s a big mental health component,” Mantanach said.
Alaska is not alone.
Antonio Rivera, an 18-year veteran who spent three times in Iraq and a year in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, candidly admits he has severe PTSD.
“I know I need help. There are signs and I’ve waited long enough,” said Rivera, 48, stationed at Fort Hood, Texas. “I don’t want my children to suffer because I can’t help them.”
He does yoga but says he needs more. He is reluctant to seek help within the military.
“Personally, I would be more comfortable if I could talk to someone outside,” he said. “I would be able to open up more without worrying about how it might affect my career.”
Others who speak up say they are having trouble getting help.
For years, Williamson fought to get time off and treatment, despite “a lot of briefings and pamphlets about suicide and PTSD” on the base.
Ultimately, she attended a month-long inpatient program in Arizona. When she returned, the therapist recommended equine assisted therapy for her.
Williamson is now a regular at the Cloverleaf Equine Center in Clifton, Virginia, where he can combine riding sessions with a variety of therapies and exercises. Working with horses has long been used as a form of therapy for people with physical or mental disabilities and for children diagnosed with autism. and to help military personnel with PTSD.
“To be able to work with horses, you have to be able to control their emotions. They communicate through body language and energy,” says Shelby Morrison, Communications Director at Cloverleaf. . “They respond to the energy around them. They respond to negativity, positivity, anxiety and excitement.”
According to Morrison, military clients have “a lot of anxiety, depression, PTSD. … We use horses to get them off the trigger.”
For Williamson, regular riding sessions helped stabilize her. She currently holds limited duties and it’s unclear if she will retire when she celebrates her 20th anniversary in March.
Nonetheless, she says, Uma’s treatment helped her feel optimistic for the first time in recent memory.
“Even if I can’t get out of bed now, I always come here,” she said. “If I hadn’t been here, I don’t know where I would have been.”
Associate Press writer Lolita C. Baldor contributed to this report.
The National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline is available by calling 988 or sending a message. We also have an online chat at 988lifeline.org.
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https://www.local10.com/news/politics/2022/10/10/as-suicides-rise-us-military-seeks-to-address-mental-health/ As suicides rise, US military seeks to address mental health