*This article was originally published on the Tribune-Review’s website. For a link to the original article please go to: https://triblive.com/opinion/jennifer-christman-improving-mental-health-of-our-military/
Every May, mental health organizations share educational information and provide resources for Mental Health Awareness Month. During this same period, we approach Memorial Day, we’re reminded to honor the men and women who died while serving our country.
However, these two topics share more than space on the calendar — the mental health of our military members is suffering.
For years, we’ve talked about the mental health of veterans. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs reported that suicides are 50% more likely for veterans than in the civilian population. While experts say it’s too early to know the full impact from the coronavirus, they suspect that social isolation, economic problems, anxiety and substance abuse stemming from the pandemic will contribute to increased suicide rates.
Active-duty members are struggling, as well. The Pentagon recently reported that suicides among active-duty members increased for the fourth straight year.
Our company, MyAdvisor, first began working with military branches and transitioning veterans when veteran suicide was at its peak – 22 suicides a day. Founded 14 years ago by a disabled U.S. Navy veteran and led by a military spouse, MyAdvisor continues to develop and refine technology so that service members have access to mental health and other life-saving services anywhere, anytime and through their preferred contact channel.
Throughout our experience, we’ve learned before we can begin helping the ones we love, we must understand three important points.
Access continues to be a barrier
In Pennsylvania, there are 24 areas designated as Health Professional Shortage Areas (HPSAs). That’s 35% of the counties across the Commonwealth.
For years, experts have warned about medical shortages. In 2019, in fact, the Association of American Medical Colleges describing an escalating psychiatrist shortage. Now after a pandemic, experts worry the shortage will become more problematic. Last August, the CDC reported that behavioral health needs in the U.S. are not being met by the current health care system, and the COVID-19 pandemic will likely dramatically increase the need for psychological services.
A misplaced sense of shame or other unwillingness to seek help continues to be a significant barrier to suicide prevention, according to the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. Only 50% of individuals with behavioral health concerns enter any form of treatment.
While tele-mental health is becoming more common and provides an easier introduction to treatment, the CDC urges that we must develop new strategies to reach people wherever they are — at work, in school, and in the community.
We must identify the root cause
We’ve learned from our one-on-one coaching sessions that there often is an underlying issue to mental health problems. While trouble sleeping and/or eating and mood changes are common signs to look for, the CDC has a comprehensive list of factors that contribute to suicide risk, including social isolation, financial problems, bullying and abuse. It’s important to know the warning signs to look for, but it’s also crucial that the cause of these behaviors is addressed.
Thanks to technology, we can battle two suicide prevention barriers: access and stigma. At MyAdvisor, we’ve adopted chat bots, artificial intelligence (AI) and other automated tools to increase response rates and volumes.
But how can help the ones we love identify the root cause of their mental health struggles?
We can do it as a community by creating real connections.
If you’re looking for ways to support the fight against suicide, there is a way you can help, even if you’re not a licensed social worker. It’s asking one simple question: “Are you okay?” The power of earnestly asking about someone’s feelings — not just doing it to be polite — can go a long way
So, for Memorial Day, our call to action this: As a family member, friend or co-worker, make an effort to create connections with the ones you love. It can begin with a sincere curiosity to know how someone is doing. From there, you never know how much you may learn — and how much you may help by just being a sympathetic, active listener.
If you know a service member or veteran having thoughts of suicide, please share the Military Crisis Line and Veterans Crisis Line which can be reached by phone, text or online chat. Service members, families and friends can connect by calling 1-800-273-8255, texting 838255 or visiting VeteransCrisisLine.net/Chat.