A person’s military service is done. They have returned to civilian life. But their experience in the military never goes away. One of the things that all too often lasts for years is a sense of guilt. That sense of guilt can be persistent enough and strong enough that it leads to thoughts of suicide or even taking one’s own life. While guilt as a cause of veteran suicide is a significant issue, there are two types of guilt seen in military veterans. One is guilt related to actions taken in the military and the other is called survivor’s guilt.
What Is Survivor’s Guilt?
Survivor’s guilt is when a person lives through a situation in which others died. This condition was first identified and named in the 1960s with survivors of the Holocaust prior to and during World War Two. Survivors of natural disasters, shipwrecks, fires or earthquakes can experience survivor’s guilt. The person does not necessarily feel responsible for the deaths of others but nevertheless feels a sense of guilt simply because they lived while others died. These feelings can be mixed with the belief that they should have done something, even when there was realistically nothing that would have helped others.
Combat-related Survivor’s Guilt
Military veterans also suffer from survivors guilt in the same way that civilians do. However, there is also guilt that is directly related to the veteran’s actions of lack of actions during those situations. A civilian in a sinking boat has not been trained to deal with the situation and generally does not feel responsible being in charge of the fates of others. This is different in the military where soldiers, sailors, marines, and flyers are, in fact, trained in regard to combat situations.
Combat-related survivors guilt comes from believing that one did not perform as the situation demanded and that lack of performance was the direct cause of the deaths of others. This does not have to have been true for the survivor to feel guilty.
First called concentration camp syndrome after how survivors of death camps presented to professionals, this came to be called survivor syndrome as survivors of various types of events including combat were included. These individuals suffer from depression, anxiety, mood swings, loss of drive, nightmares, and multiple physical complaints. Rather than becoming less severe with time, these symptoms commonly worsen as an individual grows older.
Guilt as a cause of veteran suicide is part of this picture and like with other forms of survivor guilt, often becomes worse with time instead of fading away.
Guilt and PTSD
A sense of guilt is commonly part of post-traumatic stress disorder. A military veteran suffers from memories of war-related trauma. Memories of that trauma include throughs about what one might have done or should not have done. With time it is common that a normally responsible veteran starts to take on a sense of responsibility for aspects of a traumatic situation over which they really had to control. Psychologists say that very often the hardest sense of responsibility and guilt to deal with is one regarding situations over which the person really had no control.
Guilt and Suicide
Suicidal thoughts and suicide itself commonly come from a sense of hopelessness. A person with PTSD continually relives past trauma. When they see no escape they take the only way out that they can see. When thoughts of past trauma include guilt there can be a sense that by taking their own life they are paying a debt long overdue. Only be being able to recall past trauma and sorting thing out is a veteran able to put that past back in the past and leave it there. This is where psychedelic medicines as adjuncts to psychotherapy come into the picture.
Psychedelics and Guilt
The value of psychedelic medicine is that they allow a person suffering from depression, PTSD; or substance abuse disorders to think rationally about past traumatic events. Without help a person falls into a negative feedback loop in which painful memories cause anxiety shutting off the ability to rationally sort them out and deal with them. Psychedelic medicines help relieve that anxiety and allow the brain to consider painful memories and come to a healthy place where PTSD and depression are better and the risk of suicide is reduced.