Losing One of Our Own

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Family photo

Dr. Peter Linnerooth and his infant son last month.

While the loss of any life to suicide is tragic, the loss of Dr. Peter Linnerooth — who died at the age of 42 on January 2 — is especially distressing to those of us in the mental health community.

As an Army psychologist who served in Iraq, Dr. Linnerooth had provided care to hundreds of service men and women affected by the trauma of war. And not surprisingly, he too suffered from the post-traumatic stress that he so successfully assessed and treated in others.

As reported by Mark Thompson here on Battleland January 11, Dr. Linnerooth wrote professionally about the risk associated with the work that he cared deeply about. Indeed, he was the primary author of a 2011 article that explored the danger to mental health professionals like him, who had witnessed the brutalities of war first hand.

He clearly understood the danger to those in the military whose job it is to save others from killing themselves. He was interviewed by TIME magazine and the New York Times regarding his perspective and experience—and yet in his final hours, no one was able to prevent him from becoming a casualty of the invisible injuries he so often spoke and wrote about.

It appears that there was no single event or factor that lead Dr. Linnerooth to end his life.

His story, sadly, is similar to that of many others who have served in our military since our nation went to war well over a decade ago. He came home after experiencing loss and trauma, he suffered from post traumatic-stress and depression, he struggled to find and maintain a job that had meaning, his relationships began falling apart, and at some point he gave up.

Perhaps most disturbing, he must have known what was happening to him: he knew why he was suffering and why his world was disintegrating and still, despite all of his knowledge and expertise, he was unable to find relief from his pain.

Like so many other stories that have been reported about those who have struggled upon return, this one suggests there were opportunities to intervene and prevent this tragedy. By all reports it was his work with other veterans afflicted by these invisible injuries that gave Dr. Linnerooth a sense of purpose. Yet he was terminated from his position at the VA because he hadn’t completed the process to obtain his license.

Like many men and women who entered the military prior to 2007, he was not required to have a license to practice while he was in the military. He was given the responsibility to treat and save those who were suffering.

But once he separated from the military, he was required to go through the tedious, often frustrating bureaucratic process of gathering documents and providing verification that he was qualified to do the job that our government had trusted him to do for years while serving our country.

Understandably, the VA must have standards of care. Understandably, administrators within government agencies must follow guidelines and policies created to maintain these standards of care.

But it seems that certain structures could be erected that would allow for exceptions or create extensions for veterans like Dr. Linnerooth.

We frequently hear that there is a shortage of mental health professionals within the DoD and VA and that there aren’t enough mental health professionals available to treat those coming home. How can we justify adhering to rigid requirements when those who have given so much to our country are literally dying because they do not receive the care that they need?

Of course, the specifics of Dr. Linnerooth’s case will eventually come to light, but unless he was a danger to others or incompetent, perhaps the specifics don’t really matter.

For if the individuals involved in the decision surrounding this man’s employment had truly understood what was at stake, if they had understood the value to this combat veteran of having meaningful work, if they had recognized his value to the veterans he treated, then perhaps someone would have found a way to keep him engaged and employed so that he could continue the process of healing.

That doesn’t seem too much to ask given all that he had done for so many, for so long.

There were 349 suicides within the military in 2012, according to a statement released by the Pentagon earlier this week. That number is up from 301 in 2011. In addition to the deaths we can count, there is an indeterminate number of veterans who leave the military every month, disappear into our neighborhoods, and die before their time—by suicide or by engaging in reckless or self-destructive behavior as they try to escape their demons.

This will keep happening until we successfully engage our country in a conversation about the mental-health issues affecting those who serve and their families, until we fully utilize community-based resources to support and treat those in need, and until we develop more humane and reasonable processes to carefully assist those who struggle with the transition home.

We will continue to lose these men and women — potential leaders in our communities — who only needed to be given the opportunity to heal they have certainly earned.

Dr. Barbara Van Dahlen is a Washington, D.C.-area psychologist who founded Give An Hour, a private non-profit group that pairs volunteer mental-health professionals with U.S. military personnel back from war.