By Yochi Dreazen, managing editor of Foreign Policy and author of The Invisible Front
Suicide is a personal issue for me. I spent nearly four years in Iraq and Afghanistan, much of it with American combat troops. A few of my military friends took their own lives after coming home to the United States, and several others tried to. In dark moments, I sometimes thought about it myself. We, as a country, have gotten much better at talking about mental illness, depression, and suicide. But we have much further to go. Mark and Carol Graham have devoted their lives to finding ways of reducing—and one day eliminating—the stigma preventing those who need help from asking for it. My book, The Invisible Front: Love and Loss in an Era of Endless War, tells their story and offers an unforgettable way of understanding not just how much one family can bear, but how much one family can do to change the U.S. military. —Yochi Dreazen
Yochi Dreazen: This book details the deaths of your two sons, and your efforts to find purpose in those losses. Were you reluctant to relive such painful parts of your lives?
Mark and Carol Graham: Yes, we struggled throughout the process but we were determined that something good had to come from the loss of our boys and trusted you to write our story, as you understood they died fighting different battles. Jeff’s death was heroic and heartbreaking yet real and portrays the tragedies of war. He died proudly serving our nation. And it was too late to save our son Kevin from suicide as we tragically missed the serious warning signs of his depression. We knew our son was sad, but we just did not know he could die from being too sad.
Dreazen: In sharing their stories, do you feel like you learned things about Kevin and Jeff that you may not have known while they were alive?
Grahams: Absolutely. We feel most parents learn many things about their children as they grow older together, however we have learned things abruptly, as they were revealed in this book. Some things brought us joy, while others hurt and exacerbated the pain and grief yet again.
Dreazen: Do you think the book will encourage those who need help to feel comfortable seeking it?
Grahams: We truly hope it will. Oftentimes, like with our son Kevin, those struggling with depression feel ashamed and mistakenly believe it is a weakness or character flaw. We hope that by reading this book they will see they are not alone, that mental illness is real but diagnosable and treatable. It is not something anyone chooses to have. Just as no one wants heart disease or cancer. Eliminating the stigma surrounding mental health care will remain key in helping to break down the barriers to care.
Dreazen: People see the military as different from the rest of the country. But can we really think of suicide as a problem for the military only?
Grahams: No, our military is comprised of America’s sons and daughters, a microcosm of our society. While the suicide rates are higher among veterans, suicide still remains a public health crisis for the whole nation.
Dreazen: Why was the military so slow to understand or respond to its mental health crisis?
Grahams: The whole country is still coming to terms with how to deal with mental health, including suicide prevention. It is not surprising that while engaged in combat for over a decade the military struggled like the rest of the country to understand that the stigma in asking for or receiving care for mental health issues is still so difficult. Change is hard, but eliminating the stigma is a cultural change for the military as well as throughout our nation.
Dreazen: Is there more the military should be doing to increase access to care or reduce stigma?
Grahams: Yes, the military needs to stay laser focused in their efforts to eliminate the stigma among all ranks. The military needs to make sure that from the top down and bottom up mental health issues are treated the same as physical health issues. The military must ensure there are enough mental health professionals available 24/7 to provide quality care for our service members, veterans, and their families.
Dreazen: Do you think the military suicide numbers will continue to go up, or have we turned a corner?
Grahams: Hard to say but we do feel progress is being made. We will be doing enough when every service member knows and truly believes that it is a sign of strength, not weakness, to reach out for mental health care; and when they ask for the care they need and deserve, they receive it.
Dreazen: What do you hope people will take away from the book?
Grahams: Hope to keep on living and the assurance that they are not alone. Also a better understanding of what mental health issues really mean to a family and our nation. That you must get mental health services for family members who need it today, not tomorrow or next week. We also want readers to see that no family is exempt from mental illness or substance abuse. These issues are real and, without professional care, can be deadly.
Dreazen: How can readers get involved in the fight against military suicide?
Grahams: Honoring the service and sacrifice of our military by being involved in suicide prevention efforts is key as it will help our military as well as veterans and those transitioning back into our local communities. All of us can be a part of erasing the stigma associated with getting mental health care. Openly talking about mental health at home, in schools, at work, and in our faith communities can make a difference in life or death, so that it is no longer the silent killer in the room.