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Each year in September, National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, we reflect on the tragic stories behind this country’s suicide statistics and look for ways to save lives. In 2019, more than 47,000 Americans died by suicide, making it the 10th most common cause of death in this country.  Last year, as the COVID-19 pandemic spread, those numbers appear to have risen even higher, as a result of isolation, job loss and other challenges. 

For veterans, the suicide crisis is especially pressing. Each day, an average of 22 veterans take their lives. In many cases, veterans turn to suicide when other mental health conditions– most notably Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD– create conditions that make their lives feel unbearable. 

Suicide and Hopelessness

“Veterans are most at-risk for suicide when PTSD is causing disruptions in their relationships, such as divorce or a breaking apart of a family,” says Jennifer Street, an Accelerated Resolution Therapy clinician who has worked extensively with veterans. “Hopelessness is a larger risk factor for suicide than depression. When we feel hopeless, like nothing will ever change, that’s when we are at the highest risk for suicide.”

Joel Wilkins, a 36-year-old veteran, husband and father from Houston, knows what it is like to grapple with feelings of hopelessness.  Until a few years ago, he was dealing with paralyzing PTSD as a result of trauma he experienced during combat in Iraq. His convoy hit two IEDs, killing two people instantly.

After Joel left the Army, he got married, started a family and embarked on a new career. But he was haunted by his experiences in Iraq, suffering from flashbacks, overwhelming depression, panic attacks, explosive anger and suicidal thoughts. 

“When you’re driving through a minefield everyday, if you mess up you’re going to die or your friend is going to die. It changes the way you see everything,” says Joel. “That’s fine there, but then you get back to the U.S. and you just can’t shake it. I would slam on the brakes when I passed a bag of trash in the road because I thought it was an IED.”

“Now I have my life back.”

Finally, Joel tried Accelerated Resolution Therapy (ART), an evidence-based technique extensively used by the Department of Defense and veterans organizations. ART uses bilateral stimulation of the brain to enable people to rewrite new endings to troubling memories. After several sessions of ART, Joel’s PTSD symptoms dramatically improved and he was able to resume normal life activities. 

“I really wasn’t living before I tried ART,” says Joel. “I was just going through the motions, dealing with overwhelming depression and anxiety. Now I have my life back.”

Street, the ART therapist, says many of the veterans she works with experience a similar sense of relief after undergoing ART to process PTSD.  “A lot of times people treat the problems that PTSD has caused, but they don’t really find relief until they treat the underlying trauma. The trauma is really the key to it all,” she says. “When we treat PTSD, alcohol use goes down, physical pain goes down, sleep improves and quality of life improves. Most importantly, people don’t feel hopeless anymore.”