Lowell flyers suicide highlights crisis among veterans

LOWELL – Just days after the White House issued a press release stating that more than 65,000 U.S. veterans had died by suicide since 2010, Air Force Tech Sgt. Kenneth Omar Santiago – a 31-year-old Lowell native – took his own life on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC

Santiago sent a desperate Facebook message to those he loved, hours before his death.

“No one ever knows when their time will come,” Santiago said in the post. “Even less, ever choosing that moment. Life always has ups and downs, sometimes you don’t always get to the top. With a heavy heart, if you read this, it’s because my time is over in my own hands. “

Scott Hyder, founder and president of the Lowell-based nonprofit Hidden Battles Foundation, said Santiago’s suicide further demonstrates that “something needs to be done about stigmatizing mental health problems in the military.”

Hyder spent a decade in the Army as a combat engineer. Hyder also understands the cost of suicide, not only on the lost life, but on the bereaved loved ones to pick up the pieces.

His brother, Nicky Hyder, suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder from his career as a detective. According to the website of the Anxiety and Depression Association of Americans, there are currently about 8 million people in the United States living with PTSD – many of them veterinarians, but many of them are not.

In June 2012, Nicky Hyder took his own life, leaving Scott Hyder to discover his brother’s body a few days later.

“Shortly after his death, my depression was overwhelming and I began to see a psychologist who could not understand or relate to my traumatic experiences,” Scott Hyder said. “I later found out that it helped me to help others.”

Scott Hyder started the Hidden Battles Foundation to help provide veterans, firefighters, police officers and first aiders and their families with treatment and counseling for depression, suicidal tendencies and PTSD.

“Slogans like, ‘It’s OK not to be OK’ can not just be word of mouth,” Scott Hyder said. “Soldiers past, present and future must know that it is perfectly OK to ask for help without fear of losing permission, rank, position or even being discharged. When trust is created and they can see that it is really OK to ask for help, then soldiers will step forward. “

Neil Shortland heads the UMass Lowells Center for Terrorism and Security Studies and researches the effects of stressors and trauma on military members. Shortland acknowledged the stigma of Scott Hyder references, which Hyder said includes that members of the military are expected to “suck it up and move on.”

During his research, Shortland interviewed soldiers about the situations they face and the decisions made during war – which involve more than just missiles, bullets and bombs.

“When you look at the psychology of it, there are really a lot of nuances in the experiences that soldiers face and the experiences they struggle with and they have to recover from,” Shortland said. “There is a lot of depth in what can cause trauma in a soldier.”

Shortland referred to a paper by Brett Litz – an internationally recognized expert on PTSD and military trauma – which discussed the theoretical model known as “moral harm.”

The newspaper said that morally harmful events include committing, failing to prevent, or witnessing acts that violate deep-seated moral beliefs and expectations that may be harmful to the person in the long run.

Moral damage goes beyond PTSD and includes military members who have their core beliefs shaken by what they are exposed to in war. These experiences may not involve shots or explosions, rather moments that make them question what they believe in or who they were.

According to Shortland, there is a link between morally harmful events and negative outcomes such as alcohol dependence, unemployment and suicidal thoughts.

“When you look at the broader picture of what war involves outside of tactical operation, there are a lot of values ​​at stake about what we believe in ourselves and what people think is the purpose of war,” Shortland said.

Data released by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs this year shows that an average of 17 U.S. soldiers and maids commit suicide each day. The data found was a decrease in the number of veteran suicides in 2019 compared to 2018. The study further showed that there was a decrease in veteran suicides across several fronts in 2019, which “was unprecedented over the last 20 years.”

But the decline in military suicide ended in 2020.

According to an Associated Press article, military suicides increased by as much as 20% last year compared to the same period in 2019. The AP article further says senior army leaders say they saw around a 30% jump in active suicides by 2020. The Army executives said they are not able to directly determine the increase in the coronavirus pandemic, but the timing is coinciding.

Scott Hyder said he has no doubt the virus played a role in the rise in military suicide.

“(The pandemic) limited many methods of reintegration and interrupted most of social interaction,” Hyder said. “Social interaction is a very important thing with veterans and a big part of reintegration.”

Also, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline “provides free and confidential support to people in need, prevention and crisis for you or your loved ones” at 1-800-273-8255.

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