Social Isolation and the Military Community
Many discussions around social isolation in the military community place a heavy emphasis on veterans, children, spouses, and depression. In a 2016 article entitled “Depression and Military Families”, the author defines depression as “one of the most common mood disorders that can affect anyone at any time.” (Kerr, 2016) Later in the article, they list social isolation as a symptom of emotional problems in military children AND as a common symptom of depression overall (Kerr, 2016). One of the author’s recommendations for getting help with depression, besides pointing the military member and their families to counseling services, is to “avoid social isolation”, emphasizing the importance of spending “time with friends and family, especially your partner and children [because] working to reestablish your connection with loved ones can ease…stress.” (Kerr, 2016) This makes it unclear as to whether or not social isolation itself causes stress or if it is instead a warning sign of depression caused by stress.
The most prominent stories in the news as of late focused on the health of the military community include reports of the continued rise in the suicide rate among active duty military members, veterans, and even their family members. The Washington Times reported on August 29 that “a disturbing number has held steady for years: Roughly 20 U.S. military veterans take their own lifes each day.” “The suicide rate among veterans ages 18-34…shot up dramatically from 2015 to 2016.” (Wolfgang, 2019) On August 1 of this year, the Air Force Chief of Staff, General Dave Goldfein, ordered all wings to “stand down for a day and focus on resiliency and suicide prevention.” (Losey, 2019) The Air Force Times reported that as of August 1, 2019, 78 airmen had taken their own lives in 2019 – 28 more than had died by suicide at the same point in 2018. Chief Master Sargeant of the Air Force, Kaleth Wright, reminded leader in a video message that “in all likelihood, someone in their unit is suffering from post-traumatic stress, depression, or feelings of hopelessness and may be considering suicide.” His call to action was “Let’s lead them to a better answer” (Losey, 2019). Notice there was no mention of social isolation or loneliness in his message. Perhaps that is part of the problem.
If we understand that social isolation is an indicator of depression, why are we not looking for it? Why are we not training ourselves to see those who are hiding their pain right in front of us – learning what that looks like and understanding what that feels like? Why are we not learning more about what social isolation looks like in the military and understanding that a person can be working with their team or unit day in and day out but be completely disengaged from connecting with those around then. The Air Force did not indicate how they were going to conduct the “pause” mentioned by the Air Force Times, but instead said “it will provide resources through its integrated resilience directorate.” What do those “resources” look like, who is working with the Air Force to provide them, and how are they assisting those living in the very culture that may be encouraging the social isolation indicating depression leading to suicide? “Some of the first academic research of the issue [of veteran suicide] appeared in [the year] 1915” (Losey, 2019) yet here we are, more than 100 years later, grappling with this issue like never before. We need to do something about it.
Kerr, M. (2016, March 29). Depression and Military Families. Retrieved from https://www.healthline.com/health/depression/military-service#1
Losey, S. (2019, August 2). With deaths by suicide rising, Air Force orders resiliency stand-down. Retrieved from https://www.airforcetimes.com/news/your-air- force/2019/08/01/with-deaths-by-suicide-rising-air-force-orders-resiliency-stand-down/
Wolfgang, B. (2019, August 29). Military suicides top record despite government’s best efforts: ‘We have to do better’. Retrieved from https://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2019/aug/29/military-suicides-top-record-despite-national-spot/