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Suicide is something that few want to talk about, however, there is no better time than now to increase dialogue in every way possible. The suicide rate among one group in particular is rising faster than ever before: United States veterans are taking their own lives in record numbers. In a ten-year span between 2005 and 2015, the suicide rate went from approximately 24 deaths per day to approximately 30 deaths per day, per every 100,000 in population (US Department of Veterans Affairs, 2018). The numbers are alarming, to many, the numbers signify that there is a need to look at the spiritual and religious well-being of today’s veterans.
Studies have shown that positive mental health outcomes are associated with having religious or spiritual experiences (Kopacz, 2013). There is an assumed image to live up to as a service member: the warrior, the defender— there is no room for complaining much less counseling.
This macho mentality is leading to a force burdened with overwhelming emotions building day after day with no outlet to release them.
The military has a long standing of barking orders of toughness and implying a necessity for members to suppress their emotions, and above all, never show weakness. Seeking counseling may be seen as a weakness therefore the spiritual and religious leaders are possibly seen as the safest people to turn to. Religion is usually associated with an organized group of people who share the same beliefs regarding a higher power while spirituality is be better defined as an experience or feeling one gets from an experience.
Our veterans, those who have served and are still serving are at the heart of a disturbing statistic and it is going to take some intervention of a less utilized tool: religion and spirituality are key to suspending suicidal ideation among veterans and improving their mental health. In this paper we will look at religion and spiritual involvement as depression and anxiety relief, the positive outcomes of religious and spiritual group settings and prayer as being instrumental in improving mental health.
Those that partake in religious or spiritual rituals may find that there is a degree of peace that comes with letting go of the evils that fill the corners of their minds. According to Bonner et. al., a study showed, not only can veterans find relief from depression and anxiety through religious interactions, they genuinely want it (2013). Seeking counseling may be more difficult for some than others, it may be seen as a sign of weakness, some may fear that their career could be impacted by seeking mental health service. Fear of these things could potentially grow the darkness that lurks within the mind of one who begins to have suicidal ideations. For this reason, some may prefer to seek out spiritual or religious counseling, as it may be more private and even anonymous (Kopacz et. al., 2016). Finding that thing that lets one release the bad while taking in the good such as spirituality, has been long overlooked as a preventative measure against veteran suicide (Kopacz, 2013). Although the Department of Veterans Affairs has recently begun to educate and involve community pastoral staff and clergymen, there are still a vast number of veterans who are not receiving the mental health care they need including religious/spiritual counseling (as cited in, Bonner et. al., 2013).
Currently, there is a relatively small percentage of veterans who are using pastoral or chaplain services, a mere 18%-31% (as cited in, Kopacz et.al., 2016). There may be a lack of understanding among veterans regarding the services that are available to them. It is not necessary to be a recipient of disability or be retired from the service to receive help or care from any VA facility; simply being a prior service member allows the utilization of VA services. Exiting the fog and darkness of the mind may seem impossible if not given the tools that are right for each individual. It is for this reason that it is so important for veterans to understand what is available and how they can benefit. In order to push past the evil that floods the mind when one is depressed or suffering with intense anxiety requires one to first learn how to look deeper within. Spirituality is personal, and in that aspect, it may help one take a deeper look and develop a set of coping skills for everyday situations. Spirituality may offer an opportunity to discover and grow as an individual while also achieving a level of mindfulness ( Amato, Kayman, Lombardo, & Goldstein, (2016). Finding relief from depression and anxiety while achieving awareness and inner growth may allow a person to open themselves up on a larger scale. Speaking about experiences that triggered the mental unrest, and sharing with others that have similar experiences may allow one to feel that they are not alone and perhaps what they feel is not at all out of the ordinary.
Religion is often associated with a group of people whether large or small and most who think of religion likely think of an organized gathering such as church or study/Bible groups of a sort. Being part of a group allows one to feel connected, something that is difficult for someone contemplating suicide. However, its more than just a group, it’s a type of belonging and sense of community. When one is part of a community there is a perception of responsibility or accountability within that community, this is likely crucial in thwarting those suicidal ideations or at the very least de-escalating them. Additionally, a benefit to belonging to a spiritual or religious group is the fact that most, if not all, tend to promote and celebrate life. It would likely be difficult to belong to such a group if there were not a willingness to participate as well as contemplate one’s own mental health (Amato, Kayman, Lombardo and Goldstein, 2016). There is power in the selflessness of listening to and thinking of others, it re-focuses the mind off self-depredating thought and onto someone else’s needs. Focusing on another in need can distract and quiet the mind of hurtful thoughts towards oneself. Group settings also offer the opportunity to receive prayer from others, this seemingly small act can foster feelings of belonging and importance. There is power in prayer—a popular phrase in religious communities; according to Malmin, this expression of one’s faith is evident in studies showing that prayer does improve mental health for some individuals (2013).
Let’s begin with group prayer, praying for someone else’s healing allows those who are praying to feel needed, feeling needed certainly negates feelings of uselessness. Self-degrading thoughts could potentially be silenced when focus is put on another. In addition to praying for others, receiving prayer can allow one to hear they are worthy and they have a purpose; worth and purpose are important for the healing process. When sfeeling of burden or worthlessness are involved for those who are contemplating suicide, group prayer may be difficult at first but in the end can prove to be an important tool in recovery and healing. For those that prefer a less public form of prayer, meditation or quiet time may be helpful. Meditation involves focusing thoughts and reflecting on chosen moments, this type of awareness may induce a calming effect for an individual and a deeper understanding regarding past experiences. Meditation is thought to reduce stress and pain and has been used in clinical settings to address these issues (Malmin, 2013). Whether focusing on the positive or cleansing the negative, as believers in Christ, praying allows one to focus on healing as well as receiving support and love. For veterans, an important verse to focus on is this, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God” (Matthew 5:9, New international Version, 2004). The Lord knows the heart and when the heart is right the Lord is pleased.
Although there have been many improvements over the recent years, there has not been enough focus on spiritual health of our veterans. There is still a strong call for service members to be strong both physically and mentally, however, there is little discussion of what it means to stay mentally strong. Mental strength can be associated with strong morals, values and ethics; all of which can be attributed to having a strong religious or spiritual connection of some sort. Without God, evil sees an open door, an invitation to corrupt the mind. Walking with the Lord means allowing the Lord to take the sorrow, the hurt, and the evil that one has been exposed to or has had to experience in any way takes an incredible amount of trust. It is not easy to let to go of such things without the Lord, the forgiveness and understanding that are received are something that cannot be taken away.
The research supports, and in some cases, has proven that religion and spirituality are in fact a benefit to one’s mental health as well as improving happiness and the ability to become part of a community that supports and lifts one another up. The cumulative effects of interacting with religion and spirituality, participating in religious groups, and prayer can suspend the suicidal ideation and begin the journey to self-love. Suicidal ideation among veterans can be thwarted with increased mental health intervention and the positive effects of religion and spirituality. The great Albert Einstein was once quoted as saying, “Science without religion is lame. Religion without science is blind.” (as cited in Malmin, 2013). Finding peace through the relief of anxiety and depression allows for inner growth which in turn can lead to an improved mental health. Additionally, becoming part of a group or community can foster the formation of connections with others in similar situations. Likewise, prayer has a healing nature, whether it is a personal conversation between an individual and God, or a conversation with God for another to be healed, there is solace in knowing that God answers prayers.
The Bible mentions the governments’ role in protection and defending society several times, one such account is in Romans 13, Paul writes that the governing authorities are God’s servants to do good, and there is no real authority without God establishing it first. This would support the thesis that religion and spirituality are indeed a much-needed facet within that authority (authority included soldiers). God is necessary in treating those who have or wish to have a spiritual or religious connection, there should be no judgement or shame in believing in something that gives one hope and lends itself to healing. It is written in the Bible, “Therefor, let us stop passing judgement on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in your brother’s way.” (Romans 14:13, NIV, 2004).
The health and welfare of our brave peacemakers is of the utmost importance; the rate of suicide among this group is unacceptable. Veterans need to be aware of the services available to them and be afforded the opportunity to utilize those service without fear judgement, fear for loss of job advancement, or wore, loss of job. There is no shame in receiving counseling, this is the message that needs to get to our veterans. Those at risk for suicide will benefit greatly from continued and expanded exploration of religion and spirituality. Availability to the aforementioned is crucial if a reduction in suicide among veterans is going to be achieved.
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