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Mental health and COVID-19 collide for veterans

Isolation and misunderstanding could be one of multiple reasons for the statistic for veterans: Between 17 and 18 veterans die by suicide every day in the U.S.
Credit: Adobe stock

For nearly a year, most of Delaware has been living in a state of isolation due to the COVID-19 pandemic – but veterans already knew that plight all too well. 

Young or old, when military personnel leave the service and come back to civilian life, there is an ache that exists, said Wilmington resident Cameron Newberry. 

He's a young veteran, just 25 years old, and served for four years until 2018. And while he maintains a steady connection with his company through calls, texts and social media, as well as strong relationships outside the military, there is still a sense of longing for days past. 

"I'm sure that COVID itself – and just the isolation factor of it all – doesn't help the feeling of isolation that already exists in the civilian world as a veteran," the now-college student said. 

Going through traumas together, in an intense – and often brief – amount of time creates a strong bond among people, Newberry said. When faced with similar traumas or other difficult situations out in civilian life, it can be challenging for veterans to fully explain what they're going through to their friends or family who haven't served in the military. 

This isolation and misunderstanding could be one of multiple reasons for this devastating statistic for veterans: Between 17 and 18 veterans die by suicide every day across the country, according to the 2020 National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report from the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs. 

Newberry has intimate knowledge of this statistic. A friend from his company died by suicide just two weeks ago. 

The total number of veteran deaths by suicide for 2019 and 2020 has not been released by the Department of Veteran Affairs yet. Although the VA releases an annual report, the data is two years behind so so the most up-to-date information is from 2018. 

That year, 6,435 veterans died by suicide. 

Unless this method of reporting changes, the true impact of the pandemic on soldier suicide and veterans' well-being will not be available until at least 2022.

If Newberry could speak to his friend one last time, he said, "I would slap him and ask him, 'What are you doing?'"

None of their friends were aware that things had gotten so bad for their young comrade, whom they described as outgoing and said used to post and interact with them regularly on Facebook. The group knew he had been dealing with some personal issues, but Newberry and the other members didn't realize it had gotten to that point for the young man that they had served with less than five years ago. 

In September, Cohens Veterans Network, which provides care for 9/11 veterans and military families, released a report showing a 660% increase in virtual therapy sessions for this community around the country.

The organization was averaging 800 telehealth sessions in January and February of 2020, but from March through September, that number rose to 36,555. 

The Wounded Warriors Project, another nonprofit that serves over 148,000 injured post-9/11 veterans, conducted a survey last summer looking at the effects of compounded stressors of the COVID-19 pandemic on veterans.

In a December 2020 report, the nonprofit concluded that "lack of social connection (loneliness) along with co-occurring mental health conditions (PTSD, depression, suicidal ideation) exacerbates and magnifies the burden warriors experience during adverse events like COVID-19. Furthermore, the compounded effect of these challenges results in a disproportionate level of risk and increased burden." 

Newberry said the experience of veterans throughout the state often depends entirely on the support system they have. He is part of Stop Soldier Suicide, a Delaware organization that works to provide support for veterans in need. 

Luckily, veterans in Delaware have a lot of options to choose from and people willing to help, he said. 

Rosely Robinson is head of A Hero's Welcome Delaware, a nonprofit organization that welcomes home veterans and supports them after deployment. She recently had to help out a Korean War veteran who, during the start of the pandemic, was kicked out of his home.

James Fiske used to live in Dagsboro and needed treatment for bladder cancer. After he got treatment in the Bronx one day early on in the pandemic, his landlord returned his rent and told him to leave. 

"I learned later it was because of my age," Fiske said. "I'm 88 years old, so the landlord was concerned about my age. I was more vulnerable. And he was scared."

But with the help of people like Robinson, Fiske found a housing development in Dover. He's been there for nearly six months. 

Although he hasn't heard about a lot of veterans in a situation like his, there are a lot of veterans he knows who are on the streets during this time that could use some extra help. 

"These poor guys, they're just trying to make it one day at a time," Robinson said. "There's so many of them suffering that they need so much more." 

At the Delaware Office of Veteran Services, a program called the Veterans Trust Fund offers support for veterans by way of paying bills if they don't have the funds or financial assistance for emergencies. 

In 2019, it approved 71 applications for assistance and only 54 in 2020. The total number of applications for assistance was also less last year. 

Although applications for the fund decreased in 2020, Executive Director Joshua Matticks says this is due to the eviction moratorium, utilities companies being more lenient and unemployment being accessible for many people around the country.

He anticipates, however, that when all of those moratoriums have ended and the world has a better grasp on the COVID-19 pandemic, the office will see a greater influx of people needing support. 

"I expect 2021, towards the back end of the year, to pick up that pace," Matticks said. "I also have also informed the executive committee and the commissioners, that not only should we expect an increase in requests, we should also expect an increase in the amount per request." 

Luckily, the trust is not used for any other purposes so even if veterans are not using it right now, it will be growing.

To donate to the trust, checks can be made payable to the Delaware Veterans Trust Fund and mailed to 802 Silver Lake Blvd. Suite 100, Dover, DE 19904. 

If you are a veteran in need of support, there are a number of resources:

- Visit stopsoldiersuicide.org 

- Contact Cameron Newberry at cameronrnewberry@gmail.com

- Contact the Delaware Office of Veteran Services at vets.delaware.gov or (800) 344-9900

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