Connection between traumatic brain injuries and military suicides is main topic at mental health summit

Even minor blows to the head can cause TBI, experts agree brain scans must be more common

SAN ANTONIO – Tackling the mounting military suicide rates is a massive task, but a network of nationwide providers agrees — traumatic brain injuries are a contributing factor.

One of the people pushing for awareness on the issue is Mark Riddick, who served in the U.S. Army for 21 years as a combat medic and healthcare administrator.

“I went to Iraq, Afghanistan, Kosovo, South Korea, all over the place.

In his many years of training and service, he had quite a few bumps or blows to the head.

“I’ve been repelling or I’ve done airborne operations and I’ve hit the ground and I come to and I shake a little bit and feel a little dizzy, I feel a little woozy, I get up and I’m out of sorts for the next couple hours or a day or so and a lot of us will just shake it off,” Riddick said.

However, studies by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Institutes of Health, Veterans Affairs and others show that blows to the head, whether severe or minor, can cause traumatic brain injuries that lead to mental and behavioral issues.

“I’ve experienced things myself from a short temper to impulse control, feelings of hopelessness or despair. I’ve experienced a range of emotions that to me, came out of nowhere, and I’m like, ‘What just happened? Why did I react like that?’ So there’s a lot of research behind it but I certainly think that’s the case,” Riddick said.

Riddick is now the Deputy Chief of Behavioral Health at Endeavors, the largest veterans services provider in Texas, covering 111 counties.

He said the medical and behavioral health fields are finally paying more attention to traumatic brain injuries.

“Depending on that brain injury, the severity of it, how the brain was affected, traumatic brain injury can cause a wide array of physical, cognitive, and even emotional symptoms. Some of the common ones are headaches, dizziness, nausea, memory loss, the list goes on and on. But in terms of the mental and emotional wellbeing, research is showing that TBIs can increase a person’s risk for developing things such as anxiety or depression,” Riddick said.

The link between traumatic brain injuries and suicide, was a key topic at the annual Endeavors Mental Health Summit this month.

“They spoke at depth and in detail about diagnosing traumatic brain injuries and doing brain scans even though you may not think it’s indicated, and some of the contraindications of not doing those brain scans when diagnosing behavioral health and medical conditions,” Riddick said.

Riddick is and is urging providers to order brain scans for mental health patients.

“Years down the line, things add up. The brain keeps score. Just because you didn’t lose consciousness, you didn’t throw up, you didn’t have nausea, you just shake it off and think it’s no big deal, but every single blow to the head could lead to, or could be a traumatic brain injury,” he said.

The collective focus is on preventing those head blows in the first place.

“When you’re doing certain operations you should wear a helmet, not taking unnecessary blows to the head because of training that you’re doing,” Riddick said.

Anyone struggling with mental health can reach out to Endeavors which runs the extensive Veterans Wellness Center in San Antonio.

“We use a very holistic and individualized approach to treating veterans who may be experiencing behavioral or mental health conditions as a result of TBI,” he explained.

They offer the traditional cognitive behavioral therapy to reduce mental health issues including thoughts of suicide, but there’s also a big emphasis on bettering overall quality of life.

“There is physical fitness that is really known to produce endorphins that help some of the issues like depression and anxiety. There’s non-traditional means like acupuncture, massage therapy, equine therapy, there’s music therapy, art therapy, there’s tons of ways that we can use to provide vets a productive means to deal with their stressors,” Riddick said.

Riddick himself said he was wary at first of the many types of holistic treatments offered at the center, beyond traditional behavioral therapy.

“I learned about equine therapy which is with horses. I learned about yoga, mindfulness, and meditation and as new age as that sounds, I will tell you it is extremely beneficial,” he said.

He also said mental health issues that stem from TBI could also contribute to substance use disorders, which Endeavors helps with as well by connecting to other resources.

“For anyone suffering out there, you are most certainly not alone. There are tons of people dealing with the same issues you’re dealing with but there’s also a ton of people that are getting help for it,” Riddick said.

Anyone struggling with suicidal thoughts or mental health problems can always call 9-8-8, which is the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline.

If veterans, first responders and their families want to contact Endeavors, call 210-431-6466 or visit the website.

About the Authors

Courtney Friedman anchors KSAT’s weekend evening shows and reports during the week. Her ongoing Loving in Fear series confronts Bexar County’s domestic violence epidemic. She joined KSAT in 2014 and is proud to call the SA and South Texas community home. She came to San Antonio from KYTX CBS 19 in Tyler, where she also anchored & reported.

Recommended Videos