By Eric Dehm
In June 2003, Kevin Graham, a senior ROTC student at the University of Kentucky took his own life. Kevin came from a military family — a family who knew he was going through a rough time, but didn’t know the extent of it.
“Depression is certainly a real illness. My wife and I didn’t understand that at the time and we didn’t realize how serious it was,” retired U.S. Army Major Gen. Mark Graham tells ConnectingVets.com. “We knew he was sad, we just didn’t know you could die from being too sad.”
In the days after Kevin’s death, his older brother Jeff, a second lieutenant in the Army who was later killed by an IED in Iraq in February 2004, spoke to his father and made it clear that something needed to be done to help service members who were out there struggling.
“He said ‘Dad, there’s a lot of Kevins out there and they need help,'” Graham recalls. “So when I got a call from this program, I came up here and said yes. I didn’t ask any other questions, I just said yes.”
That program was Vets4Warriors, where Graham now serves as National Call Center Director. Vets4Warriors is a 24/7 peer-to-peer crisis prevention and response organization that is available to all military, veterans and family members.
At the call center run by Graham, every call, online chat or e-mail is responded to by a fellow veteran or active duty service member, a facet of the organization the general says is essential to helping vets who are headed towards, or already in, a time of crisis.
“You can just feel their anxiety lower when they know they’re talking to a veteran,” Graham says.
“Someone who served and understands and has some of the shared lived experiences. Oftentimes they don’t want to talk to a clinician right away because they don’t feel like a clinician understands but a peer? A peer can help them work their way through that.”
And when it comes to helping those who are in crisis, Graham says it is imperative that the message gets out that depression is a serious matter and that veterans understand it is not a personal failure, it’s an illness.
“Sadly, we learned after losing our son is that if our son had called us and told us he was having lung problems, heart problems, or liver problems we’d have just fallen all over ourselves to get him the best care.” Graham says. “But when he said he had depression, we just didn’t understand enough about it. But it’s real.
Everyone gets sad, but when you’re sad too long, or more and more? That’s something else. Please don’t think it’s a character flaw, it’s just life and things happen in life. There is help out there and we just need to get you connected and get you care.”
If you, or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, or thoughts of self harm, Graham says you should have them call Vets4Warriors toll free at 855-838-8255, or chat online with a live veteran peer here.