Today is Veterans Day in the U.S., a day to give thanks and honor all who serve our country in the military. While the military has made some strides in recent years in acknowledging the mental health problems of both veterans and active military personnel, it remains an area where prejudice and misconceptions run rampant.
A soldier wouldn’t jump out of a plane without checking their parachute to make sure it was secured and in working order. Yet they are jumping out of active duty into a system that isn’t prepared for their needs, and remains underfunded and under-resourced.
For instance, last week we discussed these continuing challenges with mental health services and the rate of suicide in the military today, among vets and active duty soldiers.
Each year in the U.S. approximately 35,000 – 37,000 people die by suicide. It’s the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S., ahead of things like hypertension, homicide and Parkinson’s disease (all things that get a lot more news and research attention than suicide).
About 100 people kill themselves each day. Nearly 20 percent of those who take their lives is a veteran — or about 18 vets a day. Let that sink in for a moment, because it’s a big number.
As we discussed last week, there are no easy, quick-fix solutions to these problems. Suicide is the result of untreated depression in the vast majority of cases, so the long-term solution is to increase the number of people who get treatment for depression.
But before you can go down that road, you need to let people know that it’s okay to seek out treatment for depression. Or even to just be assessed for it in a confidential environment. For active duty personnel, these can be career-ending decisions — to seek out and obtain needed mental health services.
For vets, the situation is only a little better. While most VA hospitals are staffed by caring, determined and dedicated health care personnel, they often lack all the staffing and resources they need to meet the needs of their burgeoning veteran population. Only a minority of VA hospitals are fully funded and staffed to their budget levels; the rest are skimping along with inadequate mental health staffing levels.
So I’ll once again repeat what we suggested as some possible solutions to the current problems faced by the military when it comes to their people’s mental health needs:
- Fully fund to recommended staffing levels all mental health professions in both active military and veterans’ roles.
- Acknowledge the connection between increased suicidal ideation and other mental health concerns with serving in combat roles.
- Increase health record privacy protections and disconnect a person’s military health record from their formal personnel evaluations, so that admitting and seeking treatment for a mental health concern doesn’t negatively impact a person’s career. If this cannot be done, then:
- Support and fully fund the use of external mental health services for a soldier once stateside, with complete patient privacy rights for such treatment.
- Support greater use of peer-to-peer programs that seek to lessen the stigma associated with mental health concerns.
On this Veterans Day, we acknowledge the sacrifice of all of those who have served our country with honor and an unerring sense of duty. I hope one year soon to not to have to write an entry like this that bemoans the lack of quality mental health care available to many of our vets.