A recent study from the Department of Veterans’ Administration found that the daily number of American veterans who commit suicide has decreased from 22 to 20 a day — a small improvement but a step in the right direction.
The leading cause of veteran suicide is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, in which you have intense and sometimes disturbing thoughts about a traumatic event that can lead to severe psychological suffering. It can be very common in veterans who have combat experience, and after almost two decades of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, we have a lot of veterans with combat experience and many with PTSD.
In a shocking discovery, however, researchers have found that only 30 percent of PTSD treatments are effective. With such a low success rate, it might leave you wondering what else we can do for our veterans.
When someone brings up treating veterans with PTSD, it is unlikely that the first thing that comes to mind is to look to the Jewish community for how it helped treat Holocaust survivors. However, for those of us who come from families of Holocaust survivors, we know that 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 somewhere between 46 and 55 percent, which is really high. For comparison, the prevalence of PTSD in combat veterans in Vietnam is much lower, between 2 and 17 percent, and only 15 to 20 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans meet the criteria to be diagnosed with PTSD.
One of the leading scholars in treating survivors during the post-Holocaust period was Viktor Frankl, who wrote “A Man’s Search for Meaning.” He would often talk to survivors, helping them discover their own reasons to live.
Some survivors found meaning in telling their stories — making sure that something like the Holocaust never happens again. We all have a shared experience of the Holocaust, which, in some way, makes survivors feel not as alone.
What can be learned from the Jewish treatment of PTSD? There are many veterans coming home who feel like no one wants to hear their stories, but we know that it is good for veterans to talk about what happened “over there.” As with Holocaust survivors, this can make our veterans feel less alone.
This Veterans Day, invite a veteran to speak at your synagogue. Together, we can help veterans overcome their problems, and they can teach us about what it means to serve something greater than ourselves.
Anna Selman is an Army veteran and public relations coordinator for Jewish War Veterans of the U.S.A.