May Editorial: Honoring our veterans while building mental health awareness and understanding

Nia Cocroft and Sophia Smallwood

It might be a good time to remember that May is Mental Health Awareness month.

While some go through the motions this month, others will struggle. Like every month, whether we realize it or not,
the things we can’t see are often the ones that hold the most significance.

Focused around recognizing mental health-related struggles, Mental Health Awareness month is a month that carries a great deal of meaning to many who have experienced mental health challenges of their own, or have known someone who has.

Mr. Michael Volz, a history teacher at East, has a son, Alex, who has experienced mental health challenges Alex served
in Afghanistan for four years and came back from his time in the armed services significantly different from the way he was prior to being deployed.

In our last issue, X-ray covered the prevalence of depression in teen girls. In our continued coverage of mental health in our community, and in honor of Memorial Day and Mental Health Awareness Month, we have chosen to dedicate the May editorial to highlighting mental health issues that affect our country’s veterans.

In an interview with the X-ray staff, Mr. Volz shared the mental health implications that serving in active combat had on his son, Alex Volz. Alex served in Afghanistan for four years and returned from combat in 2012.

According to Mr. Volz, the changes that his experience in war had brought about in his life were “very apparent.”

“He’ll tell you in his own words that he came back and he had his issues. He gained weight, he binge-drank and he fell into a depression.”

“Interestingly enough, that aspect of his life he kept really, really close to the vest. As good as our relationship was,” said Mr. Volz.

Alex also struggled with sleep and sudden loud noises. In one instance, the loud sound generated by pool balls during a game played with friends had triggered a conditioned war response–dropping to the ground at the sound of rounds. Being in settings with a lot of noise, such as in a room with people having overlapping conversations, at times proved too overwhelming for Alex–something he still struggles with to this day.

“It was hard on the family because we felt helpless. If you could take that pain away, if you could somehow do something to change that…It’s still your kid and you still see them struggle…I don’t think I knew the depths of his depression,” said Mr. Volz.

Many of Alex’s brothers in combat also struggled with mental health following their return from the military.

According to Mr. Volz, Alex lost several of his brothers in combat to suicide.

The loss of one of his brothers in 2020 “was probably the hardest for him,” said Mr. Volz. “People that go to war, there’s a bond that’s probably stronger than a family bond.”

According to the 2022 National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report by The US Department of Veterans Affairs, in 2020, there were 6,146 veteran suicides, an average of 16.8 per day.

Although the report found a 9.7% decline in veteran suicide rates between 2018 and 2020, veterans continue to be at a higher risk of suicide than non-veteran Americans. According to the organization Stop Soldier Suicide, veterans are at a 57% higher risk of suicide than individuals who have not served.

It is more important than ever to realize that mental health is not a one-size-fits-all concept. No two people will have the same experience and perhaps this fact is both beautiful and terrifying.

Mr. Volz also described the difficulties his son had with sleeping, noises, and readjusting to life after his time of service.

While there was a noticeable difference in Alex, that his father was able to see, for others it may be more difficult to see such a battle ensue in their loved ones.

“It took a long time to lose some of those instincts he developed in war,” Mr. Volz shared.

Although Alex came back from war with many symptoms of PTSD, we know that these struggles do not only apply to
veterans. Oftentimes, the bounce back from facing issues like these is the can be the hardest part.

While everyone faces their own individual struggles throughout their lives, there is only one common thing that will be appropriate to remember in every situation. To love is to understand.To care is to understand. To show up for yourself and others is to understand.

Maybe the best way to recognize and honor this year’s Mental Health Awareness Month is to spend time putting this
understanding into practice.