In The United States, every day between 20 veterans and 22 veterans commit suicide. This translates to one suicide every 65-72 minutes and adds up to approximately 7,300-8,030 deaths per year. According to The National Alliance To End Veteran Suicide, the vets that are most at risk are those between the ages of 18-29 years old, and those over 50. These numbers really are disturbing, and highlight a huge problem that many of us have been blissfully unaware of up until now.
However, the truth is that post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD isn’t all that uncommon these days. It’s estimated that 70% of Americans will suffer a traumatic event at some point in their life and that 20% of those people will develop PTSD as a direct result. If those figures are accurate, it means that around 44.7 million Americans experience PTSD. Perhaps not surprisingly, 1 in 9 women will develop PTSD at some point in their lives, making them twice as likely as men to suffer from the condition.
What is PTSD?
Post traumatic stress disorder is “psychiatric disorder that can occur following the experience or the witnessing of a life-threatening events such as military combat, natural disasters, terrorist incidents, serious accidents, or physical or sexual assault in adult or childhood”. While PTSD is far from exclusive to veterans or the victims of armed conflict, it has been one of the most common problems faced by combat veterans since armed conflicts began. Both male and female veterans have historically struggled to re-adjust to home life on return from service.
Shell shock, a term which was coined by Charles Myers in 1915, was one of the defining characteristics of both the First and Second World Wars. Soldiers would return to their loving families and homes, but instead of feeling joy and gratitude to have found their way home safely, they would struggle to leave the horrors of war behind them. Many thousands of soldiers ended up living on the streets begging for loose change because they were emotionally unable to hold down any real employment or function well in society at all.
This is no surprise when you consider that the symptoms of PTSD include:
If a person experiences these symptoms for 3 months or more following a traumatic event, they are diagnosed with PTSD.
Times may have moved on in many ways, but for war veterans, the challenge of PTSD remains. Thankfully, our awareness and understanding of the condition has come on leaps and bounds. The United States Department of Veterans Affairs is committed to providing financial assistance, health care and support to female and male veterans who’ve developed PTSD while serving their country. However, there are many people in the general population who criticise the service and maintain that it doesn’t do enough to help our vets who need it the most.
It would seem that they’re correct. The suicide data collected indicates no notable decrease in the right number of veterans who suffer from suicidal ideation or are at risk of suicide. Unfortunately, suicide remains one of the most taboo subjects in society. Suicides or attempted suicides are still not widely discussed. The data available on suicide rates is sparse at best, especially when it comes to vets. Maybe this is down to residual shame following years of mental illness stigma. It could be down to the fact that we expect our vets to be strong in the face of adversity. Who knows? Thankfully, it is changing.
Some major media outlets have begun reporting the deaths by suicide of veterans at last. Whereas, before they were swept under the rug and avoided at all costs, it seems that people are starting to want to discuss this issue. A report from The Globe and Mail published an investigation called The Unremembered. This investigation sought to publicly recognise the real sacrifices made by vets and the families they’ve left behind. It aimed to shed a light on an issue that’s been kept in the dark for too long, and it touched many people’s lives as a result.
The primary form of treatment for PTSD today is a combination of antidepressant medication and talking therapy. This works wonders for many people and generally achieves the goal of suicide prevention. For others, the medications can have the effect of sedation, and dull the patients’ personality to a large degree. As an alternative, more and more veterans with PTSD are turning to medical cannabis.
Thousands of veterans suffering from PTSD have claimed that medical cannabis helps them sleep soundly and stabilises their moods better than any medication prescribed to them by a mental health professional. It really is overwhelming. However, there is still no real scientific backing to their claims.
Because of cannabis’ status in the United States as a Schedule 1 Drug, studying it has been extremely difficult. Researchers are hugely limited, as is the scope of any studies they can conduct. Yes, there are certainly indications that the natural healing properties of cannabis would be beneficial to PTSD patients. But that’s all they are – indications.
Until more research of a higher standard and quality is conducted, it is irresponsible to make wild concrete claims that medical cannabis is the answer to the PTSD epidemic our vets are facing. In the meantime, it is crucial to raise more awareness of this issue and of the potential of medical cannabis to treat it. Only then will more research be conducted, and our questions about the efficacy of cannabis on PTSD be answered.
In the meantime, if you recognise some or any of the symptoms described above and suspect you may be suffering from PTSD, please contact your family doctor immediately. Alternatively, you can call the veteran crisis line where trained professionals can offer you the help you need.