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Breaking the Silence: The Power of a Story

December 3, 2019

Kathleen Laney

Did you know that in the U.S., someone attempts suicide every 31 seconds and an average of one person dies by suicide nearly every 11 minutes? That’s 129 people dying by suicide every day. 


Even more disheartening is that of the 18.2 million veterans in the U.S., 20 will die by suicide every day. That puts our veterans at a 1.5 times greater risk for suicide.


This month we celebrate Veterans Day to thank and honor all military personnel who served in U.S. wars. Initially called Armistice Day, people across the nation commemorate November 11 to thank our veterans for their selfless service to our country. But one day of remembrance doesn’t change the life of a veteran. 


If we truly want to embrace and honor those who have served in our armed forces, we need to help them integrate into civilian life, and that includes integrating them into the civilian workforce, even if it isn’t easy.


Veterans often face stigma once they return to civilian life. Over the last century, veterans have faced different economic, political and social environments as they returned home, all of which greatly affected their reception by employers and communities. Most notably, armed forces returning from the Vietnam War had difficulties finding employment as the stigma of the “troubled vet” lingered for years, and still exists to this day.


These long-held prejudices against veterans can be hard to overcome. But we can do so much more to help former members of our military become part of civilian life by employing them and providing them with the resources they need to successfully assimilate to the civilian workplace. While Employee Assistance Programs and other wellness initiatives are great and important, one of the best ways to support an employee, veteran or not, who struggles with mental illness is to let them know they aren’t alone.


 


We can’t help anyone if we don’t talk about the problem.


If you are a leader who’s experienced mental health challenges, open up about them. Great business leaders who really want to help eliminate the stigma associated with mental illness can help set the culture of openness and understanding. And they can do this most effectively by sharing their own stories.


Veterans are often used to a 24/7 community while in the military. Once they leave, that lack of comradery can feel very isolating. But we can empower them and others battling mental illness by letting them know they aren’t alone and there are people who support them. 


As a civilian, I can never fully know the horrors or inner demons that our brave veterans have faced. But by sharing your own personal story of emotional difficulties or mental illness, you can make someone currently struggling see a shimmer of light at the end of the tunnel. And by listening to veterans who share their stories, we civilians can better understand the battles they face every day.


 


Sharing Your Personal Story.


I wrote a column for Parking Today in May 2019, “Welcome to May: Mental Health Awareness Month,” where I shared a bit of my own personal experience coping with mental illness. After that column was published, I received dozens of emails and calls thanking me for writing that article and sharing my story. People thanked me for helping them not feel so alone, whether it was them personally or a friend or family member who copes with mental illness.


When you share your story of mental health challenges, you create something powerful. Storytelling is one of the oldest art forms and was the backbone of human history for millennia. Stories teach and they entertain. They reflect on experiences and create a community. But most importantly, stories that we share about recovery, or the journey towards it, have the power to heal.


No one should have to face mental health problems alone. However, many people feel uncomfortable opening up about such topics and fear that doing so will have a negative impact on their careers or lives. This is a completely understandable fear. How much people disclose about their illness or struggles ranges greatly from no disclosure at all, to sharing their experiences with a trusted group of confidantes, to becoming an advocate and speaking publicly about their mental health history. Your decision to disclose information regarding your mental health is your decision alone.


 


No one remains untouched.


How mental illness will affect you in your life varies from a personal issue to supporting a friend or family who experiences mental health problems. But one thing is almost assuredly true, mental health challenges will touch us all in some way at some point in our lives, veterans and civilians alike. As colleagues, employers and friends, we have the power to make a difference. To make it easier for those around us to open up and talk. To help them get the support when they need and how they need it. And most importantly, we have the power to help those in our lives to be their best selves at work and at home.



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