Marine Private Lazzaric Caldwell was diagnosed in 2009 with post-traumatic stress disorder. In 2010 he attempted suicide by slitting his wrists in his barracks in Okinawa. He did not succeed and was instead arrested. Later he was convicted of violating the Uniform Code of Military Justice’s Article 134, known as the General Article.
In the context of Article 134, “self-injury” refers to those who injure themselves in an effort to avoid service. Caldwell’s motivation was not to avoid service; it was to escape what had become, for him, an intolerable life. Nonetheless, the judge sentenced Caldwell under the guise that his actions were contrary to good order and discipline and brought discredit upon the service.
There’s a hideous and tragic truth not being spoken here: The dead don’t cost a thing.
The military chose to punish Caldwell rather than make sure he received treatment. His brethren who did succeed in killing themselves automatically reduced the amount of money the military had to spend on mental healthcare. Because he failed, Caldwell unwittingly forced the military’s fiscal hand: Now they were going to have to spend money on him whether they liked it or not.
They spent the money to convict, incarcerate and dishonorably discharge him rather than spend that money on treatment because they were pissed off that he didn’t succeed in killing himself. Had he succeeded, the military would have been relieved of any obligation and responsibility for him. The motivation for the court’s decision is simple: revenge on the mentally ill.
Whether anyone admits it or not, the reality that a dead person doesn’t cost anything to treat drives damn near everyone’s opinions about those who suffer with a mental illness and decisions to cut or preserve funding for mental health services. The majority of people don’t realize they think this way or that they act accordingly. They know better than to say it out loud, so they don’t. And that’s a problem.
Few are willing to confront the reality that even a mildly depressed person could worsen without treatment and eventually commit suicide. It’s easier for people to passive-aggressively fool themselves into believing they’d never allow such a thing to happen if they thought they could prevent it.
People close to the victim are notorious for recounting the troubles the victim had, but only after the fact. Rarely do those close to the victim seek help and make sure the person is stable before suicide occurs. Most people who commit suicide are about five phone calls away from viable help; and that’s about three phone calls too many for most people, even those close to the victim.
It’s not just the people in the victims’ lives who keep their distance. Those who make funding decisions think the same way. We see cut after cut to this mental health service, that program, this research and that center. It’s all written off and explained away with everything from “We just don’t have the money for services and corn subsidies” to “Well, I wasn’t in favor of cutting funding to that program.”
Those who are in the position of deciding what mental health services are made available to everyone—military and civilian, rich and poor, all genders, ages and races—know the dead don’t need funding; and the constituents of those who make the decisions know this as well. Hell, the rich aren’t really even spared. They have family who can afford to have them locked away so that “suicide” isn’t part of their genealogical story.
We have gone above and beyond what is reasonable to keep someone alive after a physical injury, even if doing so means that person will suffer tremendously as a result. Why? Because no one wants to be the person responsible for another person losing their life; so we amputate, resuscitate and rehabilitate until that person is “alive.”
We do this so we can pat ourselves on the back and say, “Look! we saved a life!” The reality is that we’ve only prevented a death—and no, that isn’t enough. Saving lives and preventing deaths is not the same thing, not even a little bit, and the sooner people get this through their heads, the better.
The worst part about this is we’re all happy when people survive traumatic physical injuries because at least they’re alive. But the second that same person develops a mental health issue that is every bit the result of the physical injury and whatever happened right before that, suddenly we feel like the game is over and we’re out. We wash our hands of it and call it a day.
People who take their own lives do our work for us. We feel justified in saying we did all we could even though we know we didn’t. We know for a fact that untreated mental health issues often spiral out of control and conclude with suicide, so we pull just enough resources out from under them and give them just enough time and voila!, no more worries for us. This effectively accomplishes two things: 1) They’re dead, so there’s no mental health price tag, and 2) We can sleep easy thinking we didn’t have a hand in their death.
The person who commits suicide saves us the money it would have cost had we given them all the help they needed to survive and thrive (which is the difference between preventing a death and saving a life) and leaves us free of responsibility and guilt. For the living, it’s win-win-win.
If that sounds sick and disgusting, it’s because it is. The hideous and tragic truth is that the suicidal person isn’t the one who thinks like this. It’s the rest of us.