Linking Military Misconduct, Suicide, and Early Childhood Trauma
The epidemic of military substance abuse and suicide is not the result of “ethical lapses” but a failure to identify and treat early childhood trauma. This crisis calls for an interdisciplinary approach focusing on healing that trauma.
We might reduce military suicide deaths by as much as 18% by better addressing alcohol abuse and depression, both of which can be clinically tied to early childhood trauma.
The Associated Press reported yesterday that “the number of officers who left the Army due to misconduct has more than tripled in the past three years” and the number of enlisted leaving for misconduct has doubled since 2007. Army leadership attributes these staggering numbers to an overemphasis on battle competence above character and a relaxing of standards in order to meet recruiting needs while fighting two wars.
General Ray Odierno is right that there has been a “loss of focus on the issue.” And, no doubt, the strains of multiple deployments play a part. But, these so-called “ethical lapses,” to use General Martin Dempsey’s phrase, do not tell the entire story. And, prioritizing ethics, recommended by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, will not address the real underlying issue affecting drug and alcohol abuse by our service members and veterans. As leadership across the services cope with the complexity of substance abuse in the military, they overlook the critical work being done in early childhood which explains exactly why we see a crisis of substance abuse and suicide in the military.
“It’s not surprising that the military has missed the connection between childhood trauma and substance abuse,” says Gretchen Martens, author of Untying the Yellow Ribbon: Transforming How Veterans and Communities Thrive . “We create so many silos that it stifles interdisciplinary collaboration.”
Martens has been working with the Forté Military Family Program to secure funding for a major research study on service member and veteran resilience. The study design uses Forté’s proprietary Communication Process, which includes a resilience scale that quantitatively measures changes in resilience, paired with coaching by professionally trained coaches.
Martens believes that the next logical step is to integrate the work of Dr. Vincent J. Felitti and the ACEs Study (Adverse Childhood Experience). Felitti’s work demonstrates that addiction is not a brain disease, or a problem caused by chemical imbalance or genetics. Based on a study of more than 17,000 middle class adults from diverse backgrounds, Felitti shows that addiction is best understood as a response to unhealed early traumatic life experiences which are stigmatized by shame, secrecy, and social taboo.
While Felitti’s study did not focus on veterans or service members, there are parallels to U.S. soldiers who fought in Vietnam. Many soldiers used heroin, a highly addictive narcotic, while in Vietnam. Yet, only 5% remained addicted after returning home. Why was heroin addictive to such a small minority? Felitti’s work raises the question of whether the substance is addictive, or if childhood trauma plays a role in determining addiction.
“Now consider Felitti’s work in the context of the August 2013 JAMA study on military suicide,” says Martens. “The study found that we might be able to reduce suicide deaths by as much as 18% by better addressing alcohol abuse and depression, both of which can be clinically tied to early childhood trauma.”
Secretary Hagel’s suggestion that there isn’t one simple answer may prove to be prophetic.
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