MILWAUKEE — The pandemic and conversations about the 20th anniversary of 9/11 and the end of the war in Afghanistan are impacting most of us every day. But, the impact that those conversations have on the mental health of veterans is disproportionate. It's part of the reason why telehealth services and mental health crisis hotlines are so important right now.
To understand the impact, we talked with Chris Swift, an army veteran who served in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
"When I came home, I was so used to in the military world; everyone counting on me," said Swift.
Swift served for nearly six years and came home when he his daughter was born.
"I lost that purpose when I came home. I had my daughter but, I lost the purpose of other people counting on me," he said. "I had a lot of survivor's guilt."
Over time, his mental health deteriorated. He hit a low point three years ago, when a close friend died by suicide.
"One of my best friends died March 5, 2018. I talked to him on the 3rd, I talked to him on the 4th, and then his mom called and said that he had died. I really spiraled after that," said Swift.
Swift abused alcohol and quickly racked up three drink and driving charges. Eventually, he ended up in the Ozaukee County Jail and at one point, contemplating taking his own life.
"I was one of those people that transitioned very poorly," said Swift.
This crisis is far too real for those who have served in the military. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, an average of 17 veterans die by suicide every day. Swift says he got help and turned his life around thanks to the Milwaukee VA.
"We're lucky in Milwaukee," said Swift. "This VA has everything."
Dr. Bert Berger is the mental health division manager at Milwaukee's Zablocki VA Hospital. He see's people like Swift on a daily basis. Dr. Berger says while suicide rates are up over the last year years, it's higher for veterans and those living outside urban areas.
"The rate of suicide is actually higher in a rural population," said Dr. Berger.
Part of the reason why is because it's harder to connect those veterans to mental health resources.
The main VA hospital is in Milwaukee. But, there are branches in Appleton, Green Bay, Union Grove and Cleveland, Wisconsin. Dr. Berger says each one of those covers a 30-to-50 mile radius. Outside of those areas, telehealth plays a new, important role.
"The way that psychiatrist and psychologists can work with someone in a rural area is very effective," said Dr. Berger.
Now, the challenge is letting people know what resources exist.
"Veterans are proud. They served their country. They don't want to admit they have a problem or admit defeat in anyway, so admitting that they have a mental health problem is really difficult," said Dr. Berger.
Swift says that veterans know how important their bond is.
"There's nothing like the camaraderie that you have, the family-ship that you have in the military," he said.
He says all veterans must work together to end the stigma associated with suicide and mental health.
There's also the Veteran Crisis Hotline, which can connect you to local resources 24/7: 1-800-273-8255 (PRESS 1)