The Louisville, KY paper, the Courier-Journal, ran a very troubling profile in yesterday's paper about the suicide of combat veteran Army Spc. Derek Henderson, who had been struggling with PTSD. He killed himself by jumping off a bridge, as bystanders pleaded with him to reconsider. (In a side note, the bystanders are now indirect victims of his combat trauma, too.). The profile of Derek Henderson's life after combat is dark and frightening: he was in and out of the mental health care system, behaving violently, really unable to get a grip on what was going on inside him, and turning to his faith (e.g., reading his Bible more) as one way among many to try to cope. Ultimately, the forces inside Henderson were much bigger than he could contain, and he took his own life, after several fairly violent run-ins with family members, one of whom, his mom, tried to have him institutionalized briefly.
As wrenching as Henderson's story is, especially ending as it does with his death, it also brings up some difficult questions. With someone who was battling potentially the dual demons of PTSD and psychosis, what else can or should "society" be doing to help cases like this? It doesn't sound like Henderson was mentally ill before serving tours of duty; but it definitely sounds like he became mentally ill afterwards. As the VA and other agencies struggle to get a grip on the volume and severity of cases of PTSD, one wonders -- what else can or should be done? Should recruits be tested for mental health and propensity for mental illness beforehand -- can this even be done? Are the tests out there and are they at all predictive? And are we as a society prepared, even from a practical, "are there enough beds?" perspective -- to actually institutionalize people who are violent to themselves and others, if PTSD gets bad enough?
We've heard and read so many stories over the last several years of veterans who aren't able to get seen for PTSD soon enough or often enough after returning home, some of whom have taken their own lives in the delay -- but what of those returning veterans like Henderson who really aren't able to function adequately in society. As hard a question as it is to ask, are we prepared, practically speaking, to institutionalize an increasing number of people? Will mental institutions "enjoy" the building boom that prisons did recently, because of the increase in population needing to be housed? It certainly seems like today's trend has been to de-institutionalize the mentally ill. If combat creates PTSD severe enough that it ends up in psychosis, do we have a Plan B at all? The Henderson story is frankly depressing on that front: it brings up very real concerns about those who are really at the fringes, sadly, of even being able to be helped.