The end of September is near, and as such, the United States Marine Corps posted a brief article Thursday bringing attention to the hot-button topic of the mental health of our veterans. Despite awareness months and other various attempts at increasing awareness of this issue, though, the current mental health treatment for veterans and service members of the United States Armed Forces is unsettling. As the daughter of a mental health nurse, I was raised with an acute awareness of mental health disorders in our veteran community. The Department of Veterans Affairs reported in 2012 that 22 veterans take their own lives each day — one every 65 minutes.
Some argue that the number has grown since being reported in both 2012 and 2013. While it is not possible to make combat a less traumatic experience, we can certainly focus our efforts on making mental healthcare more accessible and less stigmatized for returning soldiers.
One standout solution has come from a New York theater company. Outside the Wire considers themselves a “social impact company” using their voices as artists to create positive change in their community.
When theater was first created it was designed to be a place where people could go to feel pity and empathy, to view a mirror image of their own humanity. Now, Outside the Wire is going back to these roots with their productions of Sophocles’ Ajax and Philoctetes. The project, aptly titled Theater of War, set out in 2009 with a budget from our government to “timelessly and universally depict the psychological and physical wounds inflicted upon warriors by war.” Audiences for the Theater of War project have been composed of over 60,000 veterans, service members and their families to date. And, since its conception in 2009, Theatre of War has performed in a variety of venues throughout the United States, Europe and Japan. The program is formatted with a dramatic reading of the plays, followed by a facilitated discussion between members of the audience and those participating in the performance. The plays themselves detail Philoctetes and Ajax struggling to maintain composure and honor in the wake of their physical and psychological war injuries.
Theater of War aims at developing compassion and understanding between veterans and their families. The performances form a familiar experience that communities can draw upon when supporting a veteran as they grow and develop. These plays put two soldiers’ private agony on display. It is an agony that nearly every audience member can relate to, and it serves as a catalyst for change within these men and women. Hopefully after these performances, our veterans feel safe and inspired to seek help and practice self-love and self-care.
As we end Suicide Prevention Month, it gives me hope to see a program like Theater of War designed with the sole purpose of easing our veterans’ broken hearts and minds. The Department of Veterans Affairs report represents only 40 percent of veterans in this country, as many states did not make their data public. Many soldiers are too embarrassed or ashamed of their issues to seek help. The stigma surrounding mental health is only worsened by a soldier’s need to feel tough and heroic. The Theater of War program encourages veterans to seek treatment and open a dialogue about their mental health, which will hopefully decrease the current veteran suicide statistic.
There is something unifying — peaceful, even — about the human condition of these stories ringing just as true today as it did 2,500 years ago. Our veterans put their lives on the line to keep our country safe, and while they may not all be receiving adequate services upon their returns home, we can rest assured that with 300 performances and counting, Theater of War is a strong force contributing to mental health awareness and suicide prevention for our veterans.