For the past several years, we, as a military, have been encouraging service members to optimize their mental health. We know that mental health is just as important as physical health to service members’ overall well-being, readiness and performance downrange, and because of this, we want more service members to proactively use mental health services.
But how do we get after truly lowering the traces of stigma about mental health that still linger in our military culture? The answer, quite simply, is for you to participate directly in this shift, and that starts with checking your own attitudes and thoughts about mental health.
Are you comfortable with thinking about mental health, talking about it, addressing your own mental health needs or encouraging others to get help? And what do you do if the answer to any of these is no?
With nearly 20 percent of Americans experiencing mental illness in any given year, chances are that you know somebody who is living with a mental health illness. Studies show, however, that even family members of people with mental health conditions can still espouse stigmas which can show up as avoidance, gossip, distrust or even pity.
So the question is, what can you personally do to change how we as a military culture think about mental health?
You can start by examining your own thoughts about mental health and mental illnesses — don’t be too quick to judge yourself if some of those thoughts are negative, since they most likely reflect how society views mental health conditions. Once you realize that you may have stigmatizing thoughts about mental health, then you can start replacing them with the realization that mental health is a part of all of our lives and that we all will experience mental health stress, injuries or illnesses at some point.
It’s a part of our makeup as human beings.
Next, think about how you talk about mental health, and most especially how you talk to people who are experiencing depression, anxiety, stress, grief or emotional trauma. Are you open to listening to them in a nonjudgmental way? Do you encourage them to get help when needed?
When you happen to talk about mental health in everyday conversations, would listeners assume that you are understanding and supportive of mental health treatment? Simply letting it be known that you’re supportive of mental health in general may encourage more people — subordinates, peers or even family members — to open up to you.
You can also help normalize mental health by talking more about it, and comparing good mental health with good physical health. If someone has a knee injury, they might get surgery followed by physical therapy — we try to avoid stress injuries to begin with through regular physical training.
If someone is depressed, they may get prescribed an antidepressant along with regular counseling. Units can also offer regular mental health training by pairing up with their embedded behavioral health providers to learn how to decrease risk factors for mental health conditions.
When we’re just as comfortable talking about mental health as we are talking about physical health, and when we’re just as comfortable going to a behavioral health therapist as we are to a physical therapist, then we’ll know that we’ve turned around our military and American cultures about mental health. Until then, I invite you to be a part of this change.
For mental health help, active-duty service members can contact their embedded behavioral health teams, while other patients can ask their primary care managers for referrals to behavioral health.
If you are thinking about harming yourself please call the 24/7 hotline National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 800-273-TALK. You can also call Military OneSource at 800-342-9647 for information on resources such as nonmedical counseling and peer support.