By Paula J. Caplan
8:37 p.m. Friday, July 1, 2011
Veterans Administration officials cite rising rates of suicide, incarceration, homelessness and unemployment. Small wonder a U.S. appellate court recently ordered complete overhaul of VA mental health treatment.
For July 4th, every American can immediately ease veterans’ emotional burdens, reducing the terrible isolation of those returning from war with devastating internal conflicts.
The good news: action is simple but remarkably effective. Every civilian can listen to a veteran’s story. Many veterans I’ve interviewed have said, “The night I told my story was my first good night’s sleep since the war.”
Americans are woefully unschooled about war’s lingering effects. Fewer than 1 percent served in the military. Veterans talk little to non-soldiers about war, and few civilians volunteer to listen. Consequently, few of us really understand war’s enduring impact.
The appeals court decision found the VA mental health system “incompetent and plagued by egregious delays.” While veterans await a transformation, the need is urgent to educate ourselves about slow-healing emotional wounds. Suicide rates for service members and veterans continue to spike despite new VA programs. More than 100,000 veterans are homeless on any given night. The most common reason for hospitalization of military personnel remains serious emotional suffering.
The cost of a nationwide “Listen to a Vet” program: practically nothing. Listening also works better and carries fewer risks than psychiatric diagnosis followed by drugging veterans.
It is hard to learn war’s realities when veterans do not want to talk. Many fear if they describe their torment, listeners will “think I’m crazy.” Indeed, clinicians and lay people often conclude that those wrestling with war’s anguish are mentally ill. What is a healthy response to the carnage of war?
Many fear being judged for their actions in war, for failing — as they see it — to show sufficient valor or both. Others fear upsetting relatives by recounting stories of horror, grief, shame, moral conflict and utter despair. Many sense danger in breaking a cultural taboo against speaking of death by reporting wartime encounters.
Why do few civilians ask veterans about their ordeals? Many fear that we cannot handle what they will tell us. We may think they should “move on” with their lives, which we translate into urging them not speak of war. Far too many non-therapists commit two regrettable errors: They believe that professionally trained clinicians can repair war’s emotional carnage (though some can help, there are too many sufferers and too few compassionate listeners), and they believe lay people lack the skills to help. But data show that, even were all the recently hired VA therapists helpful, an order of magnitude more help is needed.
Abundant research shows that social support — not high-powered clinical approaches, but ordinary, compassionate connecting — has enormous healing power. In other cultures, but less so in our own, communities help the traumatized heal by reconnecting them with friends and others.
It’s time to challenge cultural biases against showing heartfelt empathy. Across America, citizens either know or sense that veterans are suffering, often alone and in silence.
Let each civilian talk to a service member or veteran. Tell them that as Americans whose country prosecuted a war they were sent to fight, we take responsibility for hearing what they have gone through and how it affects them, that we wish to understand but not judge. Everyone can seek opportunities to tell them we witness their suffering, we would no doubt have responded the same, and above all, we do not believe they are mentally ill because of the trauma of war.
It is remarkable how this can be done by anyone who cares, whether or not they and the speaker share the same views about politics or war. Listening to veterans helps break down the isolation that is one of the most damaging perils of returning home.
Committing to “waging” peace of mind for those who have served at least as much national energy as goes into war, we bring new meaning on the Fourth of July to what it means to be an American.
Paula J. Caplan, author of “When Johnny and Jane Come Marching Home: How All of Us Can Help Veterans,” is a clinical psychologist, fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School, and advisor to The Welcome Johnny and Jane Home Fund.