A few weeks ago a friend attempted suicide. She isn't a scientist. She's a military spouse. To say that this event rocked our community to its very core would be an understatement. While my friend is in the hospital getting the treatment she needs in order to repair the psychological damage she has experienced, we have begun to have a national conversation about military service members and their family members rates of suicide.
How does this affect the Ivory Tower and science?
Well, more and more men and women are returning from war and moving on to exercise their educational benefits. They arrive at college still sporting some of the hidden wounds of this war including depression, anxiety and PTSD, not to mention traumatic brain injuries. These people are students in our courses. They have been trained to think that asking for help is a sign of weakness, and so they may not be able to articulate to faculty members that there is a problem beyond the subtle symptoms of withdrawn behavior, poor attendance, slipping grades, what may seem like inappropriate anger, mood swings, fatigue, changes in eating habits or personal appearance, etc. Despite their desire to be strong and carry on, they may not be able to do so.
It might feel unfair to place the burden of being first responders on the faculty of our Universities, but in some instances you may be the only person who sees the signs. So, I am going to have to ask each of you to look after your students now and in the coming years, for the symptoms of depression, anxiety and PTSD, so that your students don't get so lost that they think suicide is the only option. You don't have to know what it is like to stand on the front lines, survive a mortar attack, or spend your nights worrying that your loved one is dead in order to be able to help out. You just have to be willing to take people aside and talk to them and give them the opportunity to talk and the opportunity to learn about the resources your University has to help them. Often times, the therapists covered by military health insurance are overrun with patients, making it difficult to get necessary treatment. This was in part what I experienced my first year of graduate school.
In order to raise awareness of these issues and their coming impact on the American public, as well as their continuing impact on military families, Blue Star Families in conjunction with Health Net, TAPS, and the Creative Coalition have put together a couple of PSAs that directly address these issues. I am sharing them here, because I realize this is an uncomfortable subject to broach, but these messages may help reduce American's anxiety about raising the discussion with their friends, neighbors, students and employees who may be suffering. Please take a look:
I was not getting help until my advisors, who I hated at the time for doing so, sat me down and told me they were requiring me to go get help from our on campus psychological services for the anxiety I was experiencing due to my husband's circumstances at the time. I think part of the reason my friend and fellow military spouse's suicide attempt has been especially sorrowful for me is that looking back, now that I have help, my husband's circumstances have improved, and I am sailing through school, I realize that but for willingness of my advisors to be the bad guys, I may not have ended up all that differently from my friend. I was really pretty close to the edge. As much as I am sometimes frustrated with my advisors, as I assume any graduate student is, I have to admit that they may well have saved my life. I don't know that the University gives out awards for that, but if they don't, they should.
So please, whether you're a faculty member, staff member, teaching assistant, postdoc, friend, etc of a veteran, servicemember, National Guard member or Reservist, or a spouse of a service member please take a moment to check in with them and make sure they're okay. Who knows, you might just save a life.