Quiet Crisis: In the shadow of a record number of military suicides, spouses and children are also taking their own lives

By Ken Olsen

(Copyright 2013, All Rights Reserved)

Her husband suffered a skull-shattering bullet wound in Iraq. She lost her job. Her car was repossessed. A psychiatrist misdiagnosed her then threatened to commit her if she didn’t take medication that made her feel crazy.

These are some of the reasons Torrey Shannon tried to kill herself. Twice.

“It piles on and piles on and you wake up one day and say, ‘I can’t take it anymore,’” Shannon says.

Shannon is part of a quiet crisis sweeping military families. In the shadow of a marked increase in military suicides, spouses and children are also taking their own lives. The crisis is rooted in the strain of 12 years of war, an overwhelmed mental health care system, financial woes, relationship problems and a code of silence dictated by the stigma associated with seeking help. It’s a problem military families expect to get worse as the wars wind down and they no longer have the distraction of the next deployment to postpone dealing with difficult issues.

“The trend is increasing and I would say in the last two years it has close to doubled,” says Brannan Vines, founder of Family of a Vet, whose network receives dozens of messages a week from spouses who are contemplating suicide. “At some point, we’re going to get past the tipping point.”

Military family suicide is a significant public health problem, adds psychologist Craig Bryan, associate director of the National Center for Veterans Studies at the University of Utah. He treated military families in a primary care clinic during his Air Force tenure. “If you don’t pay attention to suicide and suicide risk in family members,” he says, “you are not going to be able to address suicide in the military and society as a whole.”

But the civilian sector is going to have to step up and help.

“We can’t expect DoD and VA to do all of this — they simply don’t have the resources, and in many respects, the cultural competency,” says Kristina Kaufmann, executive director of Code of Support Foundation, which works to bridge the military-civilian divide. “This is not DoD’s Army. This is America’s military.”

Kaufmann has been raising the issues of military spouse suicides for years. She has lost three military spouse friends to suicide and knows of many others who have taken their own lives. They include Kaufmann’s first mentor – “a real practical, strong, get-it-done kind of person who was very involved in her church” – as well a neighbor who was four months pregnant. Both killed themselves the summer of 2009.

But Kaufmann is most troubled by the suicide of a fellow commander’s wife. Faye lived around the corner from Kaufmann and her husband at Fort Bragg. “She looked like the picture of a perfect Army wife – always put together, two great kids,” Kaufman says. Faye locked herself and her children in the garage and started the car during her husband’s deployment in 2006.

“To this day, it haunts me that I didn’t take that opportunity as a commander’s spouse to speak to our battalion about deployment, depression, stress, suicide and asking for help,” Kaufmann says. “But I had no idea how to have that conversation. I couldn’t have done it effectively at that point.”

Part of the problem is the stigma attached to seeking mental health care. That stigma is just as bad if not worse for spouses than it is for servicemembers, Kaufmann says. That’s not a military issue. It’s a societal problem. “The conversation I was too afraid to have in 2006 is a conversation our entire country needs to have,” she says.

Even when military families seek help, it’s often either hard to find or inadequate because the military and veteran’s mental health care systems are understaffed and overwhelmed. Jamie Johnston found no support after her husband, a pilot, was killed in a training accident in the mid-1990s. Her husband’s squadron walked her through life insurance documents and other paperwork then cut her loose. The sole military counselor she connected with was transferred three weeks after her husband’s death. In addition, she had a miscarriage just before her husband’s plane when down.

Johnson was forced to sell their house, find a new place to live and deal with the disappearance of her social circle.  “I had friends tell me, ‘You’re too depressing to be around,” Johnston says. About a month after her husband’s death, she tried to overdose on sleeping pills. “He was my rock and my rock disappeared,” she says. “I just wanted to be able to see him and I needed to die to do that.”

Johnston’s brother discovered her suicide note and she was hospitalized. She found help through the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors – which tracked her down and offered its support – then spent years rebuilding. “I was completely broken,” says Johnston, who requested that her real name not be published because she has since remarried and had children.

Shannon sought treatment while her husband, Dan, was hospitalized at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. He was shot in the head in Ramadi in November 2004 and arrived when Walter Reed was at its worst. Dan became part of the front-page story in The Washington Post that revealed despicable conditions at the Army medical center. Meanwhile, Shannon’s family was worried that Dan’s PTS diagnosis meant he was a danger to their children and initiated multiple frivolous Child Protective Services’ investigations, she says.

That pressure, along with financial issues and other family problems, prompted Shannon to seek help. She was assigned to a psychiatrist named Major. Nidal Hasan, who now is on trial for shooting fellow servicemembers at Fort Hood. Hasan misdiagnosed her with bipolar disorder. “I was prescribed a cocktail of medications,” Shannon says. “I went crazy.” Shannon says she told Hasan the drugs made her feel worse. He threatened to have her committed if she stopped taking the medications.

Shannon tried to overdose in November 2006 and April 2007. “In my skewed thinking, I thought I was doing my children a favor,” she says. After getting out of the hospital following her second suicide attempt, Shannon stopped taking the drugs. While medications are helpful for some, “Since I’ve been medication-free, I’ve been fine,” she says.

Military children also are falling through the cracks in the mental health system, sometimes with tragic consequences.

Twelve-year-old Daniel Radenz killed himself just days after convincing doctors at Darnall Army Medical Center in Texas that he didn’t need to be hospitalized despite a litany of warnings including drawing graphic suicide pictures and writing on the walls of a school bathroom with his own blood.

The youngest of three boys, Daniel was a good student with perfect attendance and lots of neighborhood friends, says his mother, Tricia Radenz. A “funny little prankster,” Daniel was close to his father. He postponed his ninth birthday celebration until his father returned from his first deployment.

Soon after Daniel’s father deployed the second time, however, he started having nightmares. He became withdrawn and didn’t want to go to school. “He was just telling me he was so sad and worried about his dad and he didn’t know if his dad was coming home,” Tricia says. She found Daniel an appointment with a civilian counselor – the first opening was about 10 days later – then rushed Daniel to Darnall after his teacher called and told her he needed immediate help. He was seen by both a psychologist and psychiatrist, started on a low dose of medication and set up with a counselor.

Daniel’s mood never improved except when his father came home on R&R in March 2009. “After his dad left, he plummeted,” Tricia says. “He started having hallucinations at school, and writing in blood on the walls of the school.” Meanwhile, it was very difficult to reach his doctor.

Throughout the school year, Tricia had cut back on her hours as an emergency room nurse at a civilian hospital so she was available to help her son whenever he needed her. She and Daniel’s teachers corresponded by email throughout the day. Daniel’s former football coaches took him fishing. “Everybody was trying so hard to help him,” Tricia says. “Nothing was working.” Tricia finally told her husband what was happening. The Army sent him home from Iraq immediately.

While Daniel was happy to see his father, Tricia also believes he felt guilty. “I think he may have wondered, ‘Is dad in trouble because he came home early because I was having problems?’”

After Daniel drew detailed pictures of people shooting themselves in the head, his parents took him to Darnall. “We were very uneasy,” Tricia says. “We thought he needed hospitalization with the pictures and the things happening at school.”

Daniel convinced doctors he was OK and they sent him home. He hung himself within a week. Today, Tricia wishes she wouldn’t have let Daniel out of her sight for even a second. “I thought he went into the kitchen to get a sandwich with his dad. His dad thought he was outside with me. He was out of sight five or 10 minutes. That’s all it took.”

Tricia also wishes she had asked Daniel if he was contemplating suicide. “I think of all of the times I could have opened up the dialogue and prevented it,” she says. “I was afraid of putting the idea in his head. I know now that you don’t put the idea of suicide in someone’s head anymore than you cause a brain tumor.”

Darnall told Daniel’s family it has made changes in the way it treats patients as a result of Daniel’s death, but refused to provide details. “Pointing fingers at this point is counter productive,” Tricia says. “We have to find out where he fell through the cracks and have it not happen again.”

One of those cracks is the strain on the mental health system. “I know (Darnall) is overwhelmed. I know they couldn’t see him as much as they needed to given his situation,” Tricia says. “There were probably a hundred Daniels.”

She also believes parents need more education about the medication their children are given. Tricia read the pharmaceutical company’s warnings about anti-depressant increasing the risk of suicide. Still, “I had no idea of the seriousness of it,” she says. “And his doctor told me he had a lot of success with children taking this medication.”

Tricia now speaks about suicide prevention at places like Fort Hood and Fort Benning. She corresponds with children who need a listening ear on Facebook. She worries about the other children who are in despair.

“You have an increase in suicides when hopelessness exceeds the resources,” Tricia says, “and that’s where we were.”

Andrew Patrin’s family was there was well. Andrew went to an Army primary care clinic in search of help soon after returning to San Antonio to attend college. He felt medications he was given three months earlier were making him more depressed and wanted to be referred to a mental health specialist or inpatient treatment, says his father, George Patrin, then an Army pediatrician commanding a clinic in California. Instead, the physician changed Andrew’s medications and told him to come back in two to three weeks if he wasn’t better. Mental health appointments, he was told, only were available to active duty patients.

After that appointment, Andrew told his best friend he had answered yes to every question about being depressed and suicidal on a survey he was given during that clinic visit and still couldn’t get help. Ten days later, Andrew sent each of his family members a goodbye email from a motel room, turned off his computer and phone and shot himself. “I’m really sorry Dad,” Andrew wrote. “I’m giving up. I’m stuck at 5 percent all the time because of these stupid human limitations.”

Since Andrew died, George retired and he and his wife Pam started the Serendipity Alliance to work on ending suicide and improving health care. They realize, after speaking with hundreds of other grieving families over the past four years, that the same steps that would have saved Andrew will save servicemembers who are completing suicide, George says. That includes referring patients like Andrew to a mental health specialist that same day they ask for help and following up with in a few days to see if patients have improved. It means listening to family members when they say a patient is struggling and including them in a treatment plan when there is a risk of depression or suicide. It means screening for mental health issues every time patients visit a clinic.

Bryan, of the National Center for Veterans Studies, also advocates training mental health professionals in the military and civilian communities to provide the most effective care to servicemembers and their families.

The consequences of not taking these steps are evident in the suicides rates and homelessness of veterans and families who didn’t receive the care they needed 40 years ago. “We have a model of what not to do here – the Vietnam generation,” says Kaufmann of Code of Support. “Are we really going to do that again?”

This story originally appeared in the September 2013 issue of The American Legion Magazine

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About Veterans' Voices

Veterans Voices is produced by Ken Olsen, a freelance writer and author who frequently writes about military families and veterans issues for national magazines
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