A recent study by the Department of Veterans Affairs found that the number of American veterans who commit suicide each day has decreased to 20, from 22 – a small improvement, but a step in the right direction.
The leading cause of veteran suicide is post-traumatic stress disorder, which causes intense and sometimes disturbing thoughts about a past traumatic event. PTSD is common in combat veterans, including those deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan over the past two decades.
In a shocking discovery, researchers have also found that only 30 percent of PTSD treatments are effective.
In their search for better treatments, researchers would do well to look at how the Jewish community has helped Holocaust survivors.
Jews have a long history of treating PTSD – even before the term came into use. According to some researchers, the prevalence of PTSD in Holocaust survivors is between 46 and 55 percent, while some 2 to 17 percent of Vietnam combat veterans suffer from the disorder. About 15 to 20 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans meet the criteria for a PTSD diagnosis.
The Jewish community’s track record in treating PTSD provides lessons for treating our veterans today. Jewish researchers have found that survivors deal with their PTSD in one of three ways – some victimize themselves, some become defensive and some become numb.
One of the leading medical professionals in treating survivors during the post-Holocaust period was Viktor Frankl, who wrote “Man’s Search for Meaning.” Frankl’s approach was to give meaning to everything, even the survivor’s most painful trials. A neurologist and psychiatrist – as well as being a survivor himself – Frankl would often talk to survivors to help them discover their own reasons to live.
Some survivors found meaning just in telling their stories. They told their stories to their families and friends, and at synagogues and schools and museums. By telling these stories, survivors’ experiences became a part of the Jewish experience, which made them feel less alone.
However, some survivors were reluctant to tell their stories, perhaps because we did not want to hear them when they first arrived in America. Survivors were told to move on – and it seemed they did. They built families and careers – and kept their experiences bottled up for a decade or more. Meanwhile, they often experienced the nightmares and intense flashbacks associated with PTSD. But once they finally did tell their family and friends about the traumas they experienced, the survivors reported a decreased number of symptoms and an increase in quality of life.
So what can be learned from the Jewish treatment of PTSD? There are many veterans coming home who feel like no one wants to hear about their story, but we now know that it is good for these men and women to talk about what happened “over there.” And this is not only for our veterans: We as Americans can bridge the military-civilian divide and make the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan a shared American experience. This can make our veterans feel less alone.
So, this Veterans Day, invite your local veterans to speak at your synagogue. Organizations such as the Jewish War Veterans of the U.S.A. and the JWB Jewish Chaplains Council can help connect you with veterans in your area. Together, we can help them overcome their problems – and they can teach us about what it means to serve something greater than themselves.
ANNA SELMAN works in communications for the Jewish War Veterans of America.