First off, I’m a SEAL veteran. Although that’s about the extent of the details I like to give regarding my time in the military. You can check out my professional background on LinkedIn if you like, but know that I’m not here to tell war stories. It’s something I’ve never been comfortable with or interested in.
But I’m also someone who has suffered with massive anxiety problems, mental health struggles, and chronic illness (and even COVID most recently). And for the longest time I took the same tactic with these issues. I kept them to myself. Part of me was terrified to say anything. And another part was confident that I could figure things out on my own (“Figure It Out” is a personal mantra of mine). Not to mention, I had a professional reputation to uphold and didn’t want to come off as a pity case.
Then I started researching the landscape of mental health in this country, especially among veterans. The most stark numbers coming from suicide rates. Since 9/11, over 108,000 American veterans and service members have killed themselves, which is more than the combat deaths of Vietnam, World War I, Iraq, and Afghanistan combined. And statistically, an American service member in the last 20 years has been nearly 20 times more likely to die by their own hand, than while fighting an actual war.
But it’s not just a problem in the military. Among the civilian population in the U.S., suicide rates have been on the rise for the last 30 years, approaching 50,000 per year, which is nearly double what it was in the early 80’s. That’s the same rough number as annual opioid overdoses in 2019, and we call that an “epidemic.”
Sadly, I knew some of the people who make up these suicide statistics. But luckily through my role as Communications and Partnerships Director at the Navy SEAL Foundation, I was in a position to at least try to help do something about it. The Foundation already has several programs that address mental health in service members and veterans. And then in 2020 through our partnership with GORUCK, we established “Veterans Day Chad” as an event designed to “change the number” when it came to suicide. What made this event special was that it was done in collaboration with Sara Wilkinson. “Chad” is a workout named after Sara’s husband, a Navy SEAL who took his own life in late 2018 after 21 years in the military. Having her behind the event really humanized this issue. It made it personal, raw, and authentic. You can read more about it here.
The response to “Chad” was incredible. Personally, it gave me courage. To speak. I realized that we always hear these tragedy tales when it’s too late. From families and friends after a loved one has taken their own life. But there are so many people dealing with similar problems right now. So many living sufferers. These people need to say something. Those who like me, I can only assume, have been too afraid to do so. It’s not just about veterans or suicide. It’s about the space between everyone’s ears where they experience their entire lives. How much taking care of that space matters. How low things can get if you don’t. And how we stop ourselves from getting there.
For me that low was about three years after coming down with some kind of chronic illness triggered by mold exposure. After seeing countless doctors, running endless tests, and trying nearly every treatment I could find, I had gotten to the point where I thought I simply would never get better. My cognitive function was so low and I was in so much pain. So much fear. So depressed. So hopeless. One day I broke down and started sobbing. I was curled in a ball on the kitchen floor in the arms of my wife, begging for her to let me kill myself through streams of tears. To some degree, every day was like this. I faked my way through things, pretending to be fine when I felt awful. Eventually I just thought – how much longer can I do this?
The good news is that I was able to do it a little longer. And figured out that much of what I was dealing with really did tie back ultimately to my mental health in various ways (more on that in later months). By focusing my energy I started to get a little better. Then a little better still. Today I’m nearly back to normal. I wouldn’t say I’m “cured” but I don’t think that term really applies anyway. It would be like saying you’re “cured” of being out of shape. Mental fitness is no different than physical fitness. It’s a constant struggle. If you want to stay fit, you have to workout consistently. For your whole life. Training your mind and your mindset is no different. You aren’t just “fixed” one day. It’s a lifelong commitment to simply keep getting better, everyday.
What I also eventually realized is that talking about my experiences as a veteran is not the same thing as talking about my experiences as a SEAL. Quite the opposite. Because my story as a veteran isn’t about being courageous, or strong, or heroic. It’s about being afraid, weak, and vulnerable. Something a lot of people can relate to who have never been in the military. And if sharing what I’ve been through makes some other people think, and maybe even stops one person from ending their own life, it’s worth doing.
Like I said this isn’t prescriptive. You always hear “lead by example” and that’s simply what I’m trying to do here. Whether you follow that example, do nothing, or be one yourself is up to you.
About the Author
Chris Irwin is a retired Navy SEAL and current Communications and Partnerships Director at the Navy SEAL Foundation. He lives out West with his wife and three sons.