When we think of Memorial Day, many of us think about a three-day weekend filled with family barbecues, drinking beer, red, white, and blue decorations, and an excuse for department stores to hold huge sales. But there is so much more to this holiday. Memorial Day is a day completely set aside to honor the brave souls who have lost their lives protecting our country.
As we know, there is a heavy and negative stigma attached to mental health, resulting in negative beliefs, self-stigma, lack of motivation to seek help and in self-esteem, and can eventually lead to destructive behavior. What many people don’t know is that these barriers to mental health care are even more prominent in the military, which has led to catastrophically high levels of suicide and mental health cases in veterans and military personnel currently active in the military.
In order to join the military, it is required that you be in top physical health: you have to meet a certain height-weight requirement, you can’t have any health conditions or hearing/vision impairments, you must be able to run two miles under a certain time limit, and be able to do an extremely high amount of push-ups. While all of this is important and necessary for the job, there’s never a mention of what kind of mental health you have to be in.
A 2014 study in JAMA Psychiatry found that one in four active duty members showed signs of a mental health condition, which directly mirrors rate of Americans in any given year that experience mental health issues. However, veterans and those active are at a greater risk of developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), major depression, substance abuse, and traumatic brain injury (TBI).
For those of you that may be unfamiliar with PTSD, it is caused by traumatic events, such as military combat, natural disasters, and physical and sexual assault. Symptoms can range anywhere from nightmares and anxiety, to substance abuse and anger. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), the rate of veterans and those in active duty developing PTSD is fifteen times higher than civilians. Out of the 1.7 million veterans to return from the Iraq and Afghanistan War, 20% were suffering from PTSD or major depression, according to the RAND Center for Military Health Policy Research.
Unfortunately, at least 22 veterans die by suicide every day according to the Dept. of Veterans Affairs, and according to Forbes, there is at least one active duty suicide per day. This number tremendously exceeds the number of personnel killed in combat. Over half of military personnel suffering from PTSD do not seek treatment, while a quarter of those who do seek treatment, receive the bare minimal care, states Veterans and PTSD.
In a 2012 survey by the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, 76% of veterans claimed that they did not seek help for their mental health conditions because they feared their confession would either hurt their careers or that they would be judged by their peers. As many of us in this community know, those concerns are all too real.
For soldiers, it is constantly enforced and ingrained into them that they be the epitome of strength: they must not show emotion or allow themselves to become vulnerable. They are put through hell and back both physically and mentally, and have seen things that some of us cannot imagine in our worst nightmares. War is a terrifying thing and it is near to impossible to come back from it unscathed. Whether you agree with war or not, we do have to agree on one thing: we need better mental health resources for those who are risking their lives for us.
Due to this unforgiving stigma, so many of us, military personnel or not, fear that because of our mental health conditions, we will begin to be viewed differently. We fear we will be viewed as weak, or lesser of a person. We fear that people will begin to treat us differently. We fear that this darkness that surrounds us will begin to overshadow us and that’s all people will be able to see. We fear that our chemical imbalances will be reason enough to be turned away from any job and opportunity, and that we will be left behind by our loved ones. We fear that our mental health will be all that anyone can see, like a name-tag that says, “Hello, I am depressed.”
Our main mission is to show people who are struggling that your mental health is nothing to be ashamed of. These negative thoughts are the stigma talking. Your mental health does not define you; it is a part of you, but there is so much more to you than just that. You have people out there who love you, who support you, who validate you. There are people out there who understand and who want to help. We cannot let the stigma and those voices in our heads win.
If you are a veteran or actively serving and struggling with mental health, or are simply a concerned family member or friend, please contact Military One Source at 1-800-342-9647. Military One Source is an available service for military members and their families 24/7 that offers non-medical health care, wellness coaching, and non-medical counseling, among other services.
Some bases even provide Embedded Behavioral Health teams, which are early intervention and treatment centers that provide behavioral health care providers to soldiers. For more information on mental health services available for veterans and those in active duty, click here.
This Memorial Day we ask you to not only honor those who have died serving our country, but to support and honor those who are currently fighting on the front lines of their own minds. Please do not forget about them. They have far earned the respect and care they deserve. The more we keep talking about mental health, the closer we are to removing the stigma.
Always know that you are not alone.
You are loved.
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