Converting Awareness Into Action – What To Do About 22

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By Blayne Smith and Mike Erwin
Over the past three years, the number 22 has become part of the Veteran landscape in America. It is born out of a 2011 VA study estimating that 22 Veterans die by suicide each day. In attempts to raise awareness for this issue, we now see everything from t-shirts, to ruck marches, to pushup challenges, all revolving around 22. Awareness is important, but it is time for us to have a deeper conversation and get past what has become a largely misunderstood and sensationalized statistic.

Like many of you, we’ve lost friends, both Veterans and non-Veterans, to suicide and it is devastating each and every time. This is a major motivation for the work we do at Team RWB. So, what’s the issue with 22?

First, we’re concerned about the misleading, and potentially damaging, narrative around Veterans in general, and those of our most recent conflicts in particular. Many among the American public tend to view Veterans as either heroes or victims, when in fact, most would consider themselves neither. As we discussed during Suicide Prevention Month, mental health and suicide are issues that affect thousands of Americans every day, some of whom happen to be Veterans. Suicide is a people issue, not a Veteran issue.

There’s been significant debate about the inaccuracy of, or lack of context around, the number 22. You can read a really thoughtful article by Stacy Bare if you’re interested in the details, but frankly, this is not our biggest concern. If the number is north of zero, we have work to do, and that is why we are writing this article. Because we need more than awareness, we need action.

There is an important difference between awareness and action
While awareness of an issue can ultimately help lead to steps toward prevention, they are not always interconnected. This is an age-old debate in the nonprofit space. Should we be spending significant time and resources on awareness campaigns? Do they actually do any good? The answer: “it depends”. Before we embark upon raising awareness, we should ask a couple of big questions.

Is the issue being correctly depicted? Today’s world is busy and distracted. There isn’t much room for complexity, subtlety, and nuance. For a message to go viral on social media, it typically needs to be catchy, compelling, and simple. Unfortunately, it doesn’t necessarily need to be accurate or even true. At this point, it feels like the number 22 has been overly sensationalized and we’ve gotten to a place where we aren’t quite sure what is going on…or what we should be doing about it, which brings us to our next question.

Is there a clear and beneficial call to action? If we’re going to create awareness of an issue, we should also create awareness of, and a guide toward, potential solutions. In some cases, the call to action is to donate. There is nothing inherently wrong with that. Let’s say that the most urgent need is to increase funding for critical research. In that scenario, a call for donations might be the most appropriate ask. Unfortunately, some awareness or educational campaigns are little more than a way to spend programmatic dollars on a fundraising effort. So, what should we be doing about Veteran suicide? If you want to take action, here are some things that you can do today:

1) Learn and share the five signs of suffering. Recognizing that a friend or loved one is hurting is the first step to finding help. As many as 1 in 4 Americans need mental health care and they should not be afraid to seek it.

2) Call somebody that you’re concerned about and plan to listen. You don’t necessarily need to have the answers. If you’re really worried, ask THE question. Ask your friend if he is thinking about hurting himself. Talking about suicide won’t cause him to consider it, isolation might.

3) Visit a Veterans nursing home or assisted living facility. The large majority of Veterans dying by suicide are elderly. Sadly, many of our older Veterans are rarely, if ever, visited while they are in assisted living. Nursing homes are always looking for volunteers to walk, talk, play cards, or just spend time with these great Americans.

4) Do pushups, but with somebody else. Just grab a friend and get some exercise. Nothing is more effective at combating isolation, depression, anxiety, and stress than physical activity.

Suicide is difficult topic. It is a real issue that affects thousands of Americans and requires our collective awareness. If the number 22 has helped to raise that awareness, perhaps it has done its job. We only ask that you consider taking action on that awareness and help us defeat the isolation and hopelessness that often leads to suicide, because one is too many.

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