When it comes to the veteran support community, there are fewer subjects, in my opinion, that are more sensitive than Veteran Suicide. There are also fewer subjects that are more individualized, and more complicated. Let me throw this firebomb of a question out there:
Are there some circumstances that make it acceptable for someone to take their own life?
Before you close this, or block me, or respond, take a moment and consider the thought that comes to your mind. Without judgement, without anyone knowing what thoughts you’re having right now, consider your answer. It doesn’t make you a bad person, if the answer is that there might be some circumstances where it would be acceptable. It means that you have a complicated opinion on a complicated subject.
Personally, just to give you my answers to the quiz, I don’t believe that there are any circumstances in which suicide is acceptable. But I know that some of you do.
I’ve had this discussion before, when I lead Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training workshops while on Active Duty. In a portion of the course that helped participants understand their attitudes and values towards suicide, a similar question to the one above is asked, and a discussion about people’s answers always proved instructive. For me, when people tended to admit that suicide might be acceptable under certain circumstances, I would ask about those circumstances. Some of that, I’ll talk about in a minute. For those who said that it is never acceptable under any circumstances, I would ask them:
What about Ariel Castro? The world was shocked in 2013 when it was found that three women had been held captive and repeatedly raped by Castro for over a decade. He was convicted of kidnapping and rape and sentenced to over 1,000 years of correctional custody. For someone to have committed such prolonged torture and abuse, committed such detestable crimes, is the taking of their own life acceptable? Or understandable? Some would say, “Coward’s way out.” Some would say, “Poetic Justice.” This type of situation in which someone takes their own life after committing a crime, this is one of those complicated factors. In the 24 hours before this post was published, the media widely reported on two separate circumstances of suicide. First, murder suspect, Steve Stephens, who was being sought by police after posting a video on Facebook of himself committing murder, took his own life while he was being chased by police. Second, convicted murderer and former New England Patriot Aaron Hernandez, who was found in his jail cell on the morning of 19 April, 2017, after he had apparently taken his own life. Was suicide acceptable in this case? Your opinions are your own, of course, and I for one won’t judge you for them.
What about those who are suffering with extreme pain or facing a known debilitating illness? This argument stretches back to my childhood, with Jack Kervorkian making his argument for physician-assisted suicide for terminally ill patients. My first roommate in the Army was a huge Chargers fan, and when Junior Seau took his own life in 2012, I immediately thought of him. Seau was found to be suffering from Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). CTE is a degenerative disease found in individuals who have endured a severe blow or repeated blows to the head. Common in football players…and possibly veterans. Another example, not that it’s needed, is Robin Williams, whose widow believes that he killed himself as a result of a degenerative neurological disease called diffuse Lewy body dementia. Some may argue that, faced with inevitable degenerative mental or physical illness, it might be a blessing for someone to take their own life, rather than endure the pain and suffering, and put their families through that.
The problem with each of these cases is that we can speculate all we want, but the answers…the “why”…ended with each of them. No definitive suicide note was found with any of them, no explanation. For some, no explanation would seem to be necessary. Of course Stephens and Castro would take their own life, look what they did. Tragic as they were, the deaths of Seau and Williams might be understandable, knowing what they were facing. This is one of the ultimate tragic problems with suicides…the eternal unanswered question of “why” and “what could I have done?”
As a mental health counselor that works exclusively with veterans, I have to keep in mind that it is a distinct possibility that some veterans I work with are at increased risk of taking their own life. The causes are as numerous and varied as the circumstances that each veteran has experienced. I can only hope that I provide enough of a sense of trust and connection that they will choose to reach out for help before taking that final, irrevocable step. I also have to be aware of my own complicated attitude toward suicide in general, and veteran suicide in particular. I don’t want to see a veteran homeless. I don’t want to see them in jail. If only my wanting to be so made it so, I would be pleased…but I know that it will continue to happen. I certainly, clearly, and absolutely don’t want to see a veteran die by their own hand. In as many ways as possible, as often as possible, I want to make that point.
I don’t consider any circumstance acceptable for a veteran to take their own life. Even the most vile, heinous, criminal act, even the most degenerative disease. That’s just my opinion, and I appreciate that others might have theirs. I know, however, that shaky breathless moment that exists after you’ve just found out that you’ve lost another brother or sister. Or family member. The world is forever irrevocably changed after someone you know has taken their own life.
What were the names of the veterans who took their own life yesterday? Or the ones who took their life on the day Robin Williams killed himself? Just because we don’t know who they were, doesn’t mean that they didn’t impact the lives of those who knew them the way these high-profile instances impacted many of us. Taking the time to consider and understand your own complicated attitudes toward suicide can be beneficial in making a difference in those around you.
The Head Space and Timing Blog is supported by the Colorado Veterans Health and Wellness Agency, a 501(c)3 Nonprofit in Colorado Springs, Colorado. The goal of the CVHWA is to provide military culturally competent mental health counseling to veterans and their spouses, regardless of characterization of discharge, time of service, or era of service. Our vision is to assist veterans to identify and remove barriers to their mental, physical, emotional, and behavioral wellness. For questions or inquiries, contact us!