A different war: Military families do battle with suicide

Published: Sunday, April 27 2014 8:10 p.m. MDT

Zimmerman said coping gets easier. Working out, running and mountain biking early every morning helps her feel alive. She then spends time with her kids until they go to bed. They ride bikes and work on kindergarten homework and play games.

To people struggling in similar situations, Zimmerman said, "Just think about tomorrow because yesterday might be dark, and today might be dark, but there’s nothing saying tomorrow won’t be light."

Understanding symptoms

Dr. Craig Bryan, executive director of the National Center for Veterans Studies at the University of Utah, said the chance of having an immediate or delayed onset of PTSD is about 50/50 for those who are going to manifest severe symptoms. He said there’s a common sequence that leads to suicide: first PTSD, then substance abuse as a way to cope with trauma symptoms, and then depression because the first two affect things like mood, sleep and social relationships.

Military service members come home from a life where they have power, control, status, adrenaline rushes and a support system of people who understand.

They experience a loss similar to a civilian retiree, explained Gary Blair, suicide prevention case manager for the Veterans Affairs Salt Lake City Health Care System.

“When you come home, how to deal with going back to civilian life, that’s pretty hard … and things are a lot different when you come home, depending on how long you’ve been away,” said retired Staff Sgt. Lonnie Jorgensen of Roy, who served two consecutive nine-month tours in Iraq.

Jorgensen said he came home to an independent wife who was used to doing things on her own, so he felt “kind of worthless” and that he wasn’t needed.

“It’s hard to adapt to going back to mowing the lawn, doing the grocery shopping, and stuff like that,” Jorgensen said.

Jorgensen said he was advised to stay away from alcohol and buying guns or a motorcycle for a year, but many soldiers come home and do dangerous things for the exhilaration.

“They want to match that adrenaline rush they had when they got in that firefight or when that vehicle was blown up,” he said. “It took about a year to where my driving habits got back to normal. I still don’t trust people. I see people on an overpass and I get worried that they’re going to throw a bomb at me."

Managing stress

It's not necessarily deployment and combat stress that contribute to the high rates of suicide among military service members and veterans, Bryan said.

“Deployment in and of itself doesn’t really seem to carry much risk," Bryan said. "It’s what’s happened to them while they were deployed."

Often those deployed on peace-keeping or humanitarian missions have more mental health issues than those deployed on combat missions because of all the suffering and atrocities they see.

As with all mental health concerns, it is a matter of resiliency. Military service men and women have the same risk factors civilians have — relationship problems, financial woes, legal troubles and employment stress. Bryan said these factors are often more closely associated with mental health problems and suicide than deployment and seeing combat.

“What seems to be different is just there’s something about the military culture that serves as a barrier for seeking out health care and makes them less likely to want to talk to others about the problems that they're having," Bryan said.

The stigma surrounding suicide is one of the biggest barriers keeping people from seeking mental health help, according to Kim Myers, suicide prevention coordinator with the Utah Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health.

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