COVID-19 is a veterans issue, too

Column by Patrick McCallister
For Veteran Voice

COVID-19 is here for a while and scaring the (expletive) out of most everybody. Fact is, coronavirus is a veterans issue. Especially in Florida. Yeah, it’s a global issue with lots of people at risk. What makes veterans so special for me to call COVID-19 a veterans issue? Two things. Average age and higher risk for suicidal ideation. 

“…don’t shut down all communication”

As of this writing there are 216 confirmed cases of coronavirus in Florida with 2,294 having been tested for it. Of those, 1,017 tested negative and 1,061 are awaiting word at this writing. Surely, there are way more with the virus than that and the numbers will be much higher when you read this. My point is the state is now in a hurricane-worthy hunker down over 216 confirmed cases of COVID-19, because we (expletive) well know there are probably more than 216 getting infected in Florida every … single … day.

We’re hearing the drumbeat of “social distancing, social distancing” from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on down to local doctors. And a lot of people are getting social distancing forced on them as businesses are shutting down and sending employees home, public events are getting cancelled wholesale, and organizations are locking doors and hanging signs telling members they’re not sure when they’ll reopen.

It’s all depressing. America’s feeling closed.

There’s seemingly another term for “social distancing.” Yeah, “Isolating.” You know, that thing mental-health experts warn us not to do when we’re living with past or ongoing traumas that leave us vulnerable to depressions and suicidal ideation.

I really, really wanted to talk to mental-health experts at the Department of Veteran Affairs to write this column. I’m more likely to get an interview with Abe Lincoln right now as the Veterans Health Administration and its facilities play a frontline, key role in combating coronavirus. But, Mindi Fetterman gave me some time to talk about balancing the sound medical advice to socially distance to avoid COVID-19 infection and the sound mental-health advice to avoid isolating when you have past or ongoing trauma creating problems such as post-traumatic stress. She’s the founder and executive director of the Inner Truth Project in Port St. Lucie which has a program for survivors of military sexual trauma.

“We can still talk on the phone, we can still email, we can still FaceTime,” Fetterman told me. “There are so many different things (for communication). When we say ‘Don’t isolate,’ we mean don’t shut down all communication. There’s a difference between social distancing and isolation.”

“If you don’t ask, they won’t tell you”

As I see it, the COVID-19 veterans issue No. 1 is increased risk of deteriorating mental health and suicidal ideation. Veterans on a normal day already have a death by suicide rate that’s 1.5 times higher than their non-veteran peers. For women, it’s abysmally worse. Women veterans are 2.2 times more likely to die by suicide than their non-veteran peers. Men veterans are 1.3 times more likely.

Fetterman said new traumas — and the COVID-19 world shutdown is traumatizing — do reignite the memories and pains of old traumas in a way that can send us down the worst rabbit holes.

“People who’ve experienced trauma sometimes do a thing we call ‘awfulizing,’” Fetterman told me. “That’s (mentally) taking worst case scenarios instead of seeing any possible opportunity for something to turn itself around. When we tend to awfulize, we get sucked into that doomsday hole. It’s hard to get out of that.”

Drawing and helping others draw the distinction between necessary social distancing and unhealthy isolating is critical to veterans now. Veterans need to be communicating with supportive people during this health scare. Please, please, please make a point to call, email, Facebook message, or what have you, folks from your posts and other veteran friends and ask them how they’re doing. Don’t be timid. Don’t ask, “Are you OK?” Everybody will say “Yeah” and move on. No, ask specific questions — specific hard questions. “Are you getting depressingly lonely?” “Are you having nightmares again?” “Are you starting to think about hurting yourself?”

“If you don’t ask, they won’t tell you,” Fetterman said.

When your veteran friends answer honestly, urge them on to talk about it and listen, listen, listen. Fetterman said the best therapeutic approach is reminding people what they’ve survived in the past and how they did it.

“We’re all ‘survivors,’” she said.

“Don’t’ ever feel like you’re not worth somebody’s time…”

If you, dear veteran, feel yourself heading into the black, don’t wait for friends to call you. Reach out now. Call friends. Call family members. Heck, call me. My phone number is (386) 624-5183. If you’re not willing to do that for now, call the Florida Veterans Support Line, which can give local service referrals just like 211, at 1 (844) MyFLVet, (844) 693-5838. At this time you might end up getting routed to your local 211 service provider and get a non-veteran to talk to. Please, that’s OK. Stay on the line. Talk to whoever answers the phone.

Additionally, Veterans experiencing any mental-health crisis, small or large, can call the national Veterans Crisis Line at (800) 273-8255, extension 1. Veterans can also contact the crisis line by texting 838255, or by visiting Friends and family members can also call the Veterans Crisis Line if they’re concerned about a veteran.

“Don’t ever feel like you’re not worth somebody’s time and you don’t deserve to be listened to,” Fetterman urged.

Age is a factor with COVID-19

As I see it, the COVID-19 veterans issue No. 2 is higher-than-average ages.

It’s been widely reported that the coronavirus sickens younger folks and kills older ones.

Florida has about 1.5 million veterans. A bit more than a third are Vietnam-era veterans, baby boomers. The state has about 140,000 Korean War veterans, and 50,000 World War II veterans. There are about 352,000 “peacetime” veterans. A large number served in the 1950s to early 1960s. The others served between Vietnam and the first Gulf War, so are in their 50s and 60s now.

In other words, about 900,000 to 1 million or more of Florida’s veterans are in at-risk age groups for developing major complications and possible death from the coronavirus. Social distancing to prevent spreading to disease to older veterans is in my opinion an act of patriotism as well as humanitarianism.

Godspeed us all during this time. Take care of yourselves and each other, veterans.