Every time I hear the gut-wrenching statistic that twenty military veterans commit suicide every day, my throat catches. The shocking reality that more lives have been lost to veteran suicide in the past 15 years than in the wars of Iraq and Afghanistan is an obvious tragedy that finally has the attention of the Pentagon, lawmakers, health professionals and the public at large. Prevention of veteran suicide is a hot-button issue.
But sadly, it’s the surviving spouses who are ignored now.
A significant number of veteran suicides involve victims who are married. In fact, as reported earlier this year, married veterans are at a higher risk of suicide than single veterans, likely due to the increased responsibilities they face upon returning home from service. When married veterans take their own lives, spouses are left to handle those responsibilities alone, while struggling to process grief.
When this process becomes complicated with guilt and post-traumatic stress, spouses often become “stuck” in grief, unable to move forward from the tragedy. Relationships soon fall apart, substances are sometimes abused and day-to-day tasks become overwhelming. These military spouses are the forgotten victims of veteran suicides.
However, Boston’s Home Base Veteran and Family Care Center has partnered with Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) to offer surviving spouses from all over the United States intensive suicide “postvention” treatment that seems to be working. The “Intensive Outpatient Program for Survivors” (IOPS) offers transportation, lodging, meals, childcare stipends, and treatment at no cost to participants.
The two-week pilot took place last July, and the second group of surviving spouses graduated from IOPS on April 13. Although in the future, IOPS will be open to all surviving family members who have experienced the traumatic loss of a military veteran family member, the initial groups consisted of widowed spouses of military veterans who committed suicide. Their ages ranged from late 20s to early 50s, and they were seeking treatment from 11 months to 11 years after the suicides. The majority had children. Tragically, all of the widows in IOPS were present when their spouses committed suicide or were the first to find them after their deaths.
IOPS is the first program to combine treatment for PTSD and complicated grief for family survivors of military suicide in the U.S. and offers participants daily therapy for complicated grief, coping skills training, peer support and post-therapy follow up.
“The most common thing we see is spouses with questions like, ‘What could I have done? What should I have done? What did I not pick up on? Could I have prevented this?’” said Dr. Louis Chow, Home Base Director of Education. “The amount of guilt and unresolved questions can be quite profound.”
Dr. Chow and Dr. Lauren Richards, both Home Base psychologists, teach spouses to process grief by identifying and regulating their emotions, rationally examining their feelings of guilt, and learning to ask for help. The primary goal of the IOCP Skills Group is not to alleviate grief, but rather lift the obstacles to processing it.
“The focus of the group is not to right wrongs or make what is unfair fair,” said Dr. Chow, “the reality is that these things are unchangeable, so we focus on what is effective.”
Dr. Bonnie Ohye, a clinical psychologist and Home Base Director of Family Programs, said follow up data from the IOCP pilot showed a significant reduction in symptoms, with positive feedback from all participants.
“There is tremendous hope. Participants have returned to school, reconnected with friends, families and faith communities, and returned to the workforce,” said Dr. Ohye. “They are building a life of meaning, purpose and fulfillment.”
However, the future of the program remains uncertain because Home Base covers the costs of the IOCPs internally. “This is not a sustainable business model,” Dr. Ohye said. On Saturday, July 28 at Fenway Park, Home Base will host a charity run and a Rex Sox vs. Minnesota Twins pregame ceremony to honor the sacrifices of surviving military families. Home Base hopes that the event will not only raise money for its programs, but will also increase awareness of the need to offer treatment to the families of fallen veterans.