Ending the “Tragedy of Suicide” Among Veterans

44September is National Suicide Prevention Month. It is a month of particular importance for our current and former military members. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), an American veteran commits suicide every 65 minutes. This equates to 22 veterans a day, or 8030 a year. In fact, the suicide rate among veterans is an astounding 35.9 per 100 000, compared to 12.7 for the broader US population.

Disturbingly, many experts believe that the number of veteran suicides is “probably a lot greater than reported”. After all, the stigma and religious prohibitions surrounding suicide often prevent accurate labeling. Furthermore, medical examiners are often unaware of victims’ military service.

In some cases, veterans take their lives for the same reasons as their civilian counterparts: depression, other mental health issues, “difficult life circumstances”. However, the statistically higher suicide rate among veterans suggests that other factors are at play. Some experts point to veterans’ injuries, disabilities, headaches, and various forms of chronic pain. Others point to (potentially related) mental conditions, such as depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), often linked to military combat.

To treat these issues, approximately 20% of US veterans rely on the VA system, rather than private healthcare. Thus, in 2007, congress mandated the VA to take more aggressive suicide prevention measures. Such measures included creating a 24 hour crisis line to direct troubled veterans to care (1-800-273-8255), and hiring suicide prevention coordinators in each VA hospital to meet weekly with high risk veterans.

But the VA system has largely failed. As revealed through the 2014 VA scandal, which prompted the resignation of Secretary Shinseki, the VA has left thousands of veterans on lengthy waiting lists. A medical center in Phoenix, for example, made 1700 veterans wait an average of 115 days for an initial visit! Moreover, almost a third of high risk veterans aren’t receiving the recommended follow-up care and over 250,000 disability claims are stuck in a processing backlog. To make matters worse, the VA has allegedly engaged in record falsification to hide these shortcomings.

In response, President Obama announced 19 executive actions last month to improve mental healthcare for active military members and veterans. Among other things, the actions aim to increase veterans’ access to psychiatric medications, enhance suicide prevention training, advance research on PTSD, and improve coordination between the Department of Defense and VA on mental healthcare services. Obama also unveiled partnerships with the private sector to provide student loan relief and mortgage interest breaks for veterans. The hope is to tackle some of “the root causes of depression among vets, including joblessness and homelessness”.

Realistically, the entire VA system needs an overhaul to address the suicide crisis. Jean Somers, mother of an Iraq war veteran who took his life, believes “We have to start to think big”. But the newly announced measures are certainly a step towards tackling this tragedy and restoring the “sacred trust” of our veterans. In the words of Obama, “They were there for America. We now need to be there for them.”

To do your part, please donate to Give an Hour, Honoring the PathStill Serving Veterans, or the Wounded Warrior Project.


Flickr photo credit: MarineCorps NewYork



Spread of Ebola in West Africa Leads to Drastic Measures

55Right now, the small African country of Sierra Leone is in the midst of a 3 day lockdown. The drastic measure, which requires all 6 million citizens to remain at home, is the latest attempt to stop a devastating Ebola epidemic in the region.

Also known as the Ebola Virus Disease (EVD), Ebola is a “severe, often fatal illness in humans”. In fact, it “can kill up to 90%” of those infected. Symptoms of the disease include fever, sore throat, muscle pain, and headaches. This is often followed by vomiting, diarrhea, rash, and bleeding (both internal and external), leading to organ failure and death.

The first EVD outbreaks occurred in 1976 in remote villages in Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The latter occurred near the Ebola River, giving the disease its name. Researchers believe that infected animals, likely fruit bats, transferred the disease to chimpanzees, gorillas, monkeys, antelope, porcupines, and humans directly. Infected humans then spread Ebola to others through bodily fluids, often during their treatment, embalming, or burial.

Since then, the 2014 West African Ebola epidemic has become the “largest and most complex”. In fact, with over 2630 dead, the outbreak has killed more individuals than all previous outbreaks combined. It has also spread to multiple countries. Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia are the hardest hit, each with over 900 cases.

Unfortunately, many experts are skeptical that the government lockdown will have the desired impact. They argue that volunteers, who are travelling door to door providing soap and education, will struggle to identify Ebola cases. After all, Ebola has a lengthy incubation period (2 – 21 days) and “many of the early symptoms are the same as ordinary illnesses like malaria or food poisoning”. Furthermore, when volunteers do identify a case, “there will not be enough Ebola management centers to care for them.” Having recently emerged from “long periods of conflict and instability”, Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia all suffer from “weak health system, lacking human and infrastructure resources”.

Some experts even maintain that the lockdown could exacerbate the crisis in West Africa. According to Doctors Without Borders, “Forced quarantines and lockdowns are driving people underground and jeopardizing the trust between people and health providers”. The public may even turn on the volunteers, fearing that they will spread the disease. Last week, for example, residents of a remote Guinea village attacked and killed 8 delegates trying to raise awareness of Ebola. Similarly, an attempted lockdown of a neighbourhood in Monrovia, Liberia triggered violent riots.

On a positive note, several countries and international organizations are taking further actions. The World Organization is “on the ground establishing Ebola treatment centres and strengthening capacity for laboratory testing, contact tracing, social mobilization, safe burials, and non-Ebola health care”. Doctors Without Borders has 5 treatment centers in the region, staffed by over 1860 workers. Canada has promised to donate 800 to 1,000 doses of an experimental Ebola vaccine. And just days ago, the United States agreed to send up to 3,000 US military personnel to Liberia to “battle the Ebola virus”.

So how can you help? Please consider donating to Doctors Without Borders, Direct Relief, or Op4G partner Develop Africa, which is providing personal protective equipment to healthcare workers fighting Ebola.

Flickr photo credit: NIAID 


An International Victory! Ozone Layer Starting to Rebound

66It is a (rare) great day in environmental news! According to a United Nations report, the ozone layer is “showing its first sign of recovery after years of dangerous depletion”. In fact, scientists estimate that ozone levels climbed 4% in key mid-northern latitudes from 2000 to 2013, representing a “significant and sustained increase”.

The ozone layer, or ozone shield, is a layer in the earth’s stratosphere that absorbs most of the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) radiation. In excess, this radiation can “penetrate organisms’ protective layers, like skin, damaging DNA molecules in plants and animals”. Consequently, scientists have linked ozone depletion to skin cancer, cataracts, crop damage, and the destabilization of the aquatic food chain. In fact, the UN projects that restoring the ozone layer will prevent 2 million cases of skin cancer annually by 2030.

Scientists are calling the improvement a “victory for diplomacy and for science”. After all, the 1987 Montreal Protocol – ratified by all 197 UN members – “banned or phased out ozone depleting chemicals, including chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs)” used in refrigerators, air conditioners and aerosol cans. In the words of Achim Steiner, Executive Director of the U.N. Environment Program, banning such chemicals is “one of the great success stories of international collective action in addressing a global environmental change phenomenon.”

So what made this collective action possible (when it eludes us on climate change)? Political scientists point to numerous factors. First, unlike slowly rising temperatures, ozone depletion was visible. Satellite images in the 1980s showed “shocking” ozone holes over the Polar Regions. Similarly, there were clear causal links between ozone depletion and its human impacts. People better understood how the ozone holes (rather than climate change) could impact them directly.

Additionally, several major countries were quick to join the fight against ozone depletion. The US, for example, ratified the Montreal Protocol in early 1988 (yet never ratified the Kyoto Protocol). This, in turn, encouraged other countries to ratify, largely due to the protocol’s trade provisions.

Finally, unlike climate change, ozone depletion could be traced to a limited set of chemicals produced by a small number of companies. Though some of the companies (e.g. Du Pont) lobbied strongly against the Montreal Protocol, they ultimately succeeded in developing superior chemical substitutes. In this regard, some say that the Protocol benefitted both environment and industry.

But don’t throw away your sunscreen just yet. According to a 300 scientist panel, the ozone layer is “just starting to heal”. The layer is still about 6% thinner than in the 1980s and the ozone hole is about 20 million square kilometers (compared to 30 million in 2006). At this rate, the UN believes that it will take until 2050 for the ozone layer to return to “relatively healthy 1980s conditions” (2075 around Antarctica).

To learn more, please contact the Natural Resources Defense Council, the David Suzuki Foundation, or the Canadian Wildlife Foundation.

Flickr photo credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center