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Indiana Prevention Resource Center (IPRC)

Mental Health Awareness

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Mental illness is a serious issue that affects about 61.5 million adults, or about 25% of the adult population, in the United States every year (National Alliance on Mental Illness Fact Sheet). Mental health problems take many different forms and can range from mild to severe. Common mental health diagnoses include anxiety disorders, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, autism, eating disorders, mood disorders, personality disorders, and schizophrenia (IPRC – Mental Health Data). There are many factors that play a part in mental illness, including genetics, traumatic experiences, poverty, substance abuse, and chronic diseases (IPRC – Mental Health Data). Even though mental illnesses are common throughout the United States, there still needs to be more awareness regarding this issue.

One specific population which is severely impacted by mental health problems is the military. Military personnel, especially those who experience combat, are prone to psychological distress. Because of the intensity of war, this can often manifest as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD); however, depression or other mental health problems occur as well. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), approximately 18.5% of military personnel who were stationed in Iraq or Afghanistan have PTSD or depression (SAMHSA – Veterans and Military Families). Due to this large portion of veterans suffering from mental health problems, it is not surprising that so many veterans commit suicide. Even though veterans comprise only one percent of the population, they commit 20% of suicides in the United States (National Alliance on Mental Illness Fact Sheet).

In order to more fully understand the mental problems facing the military, it is important to examine the mental problems from which they typically suffer. PTSD is classified as an anxiety disorder because it typically follows traumatic events, such as assault, domestic abuse, imprisonment, sexual assault, terrorism, or warfare (IPRC – Mental Health Data). PTSD can present at any age, and it affects the individual by altering the body’s natural response to stressors. The symptoms can include reliving the traumatic event, avoiding reminders of the event, or feeling detached emotionally. “Desensitization” and support systems can help lessen this disorder (IPRC – Mental Health Data).

Another mental health problem that is commonly faced by military members is depression. This illness is classified as a mood disorder and is believed to be a result of a combination of factors including genetic, biological, environmental, and psychological influences. Depression can interfere with one’s daily life by causing disturbances at work, school, or home and affecting one’s eating, sleeping, or previously engaging activities. Other symptoms can include persistent sadness, feelings of hopelessness, difficulty concentrating, or thoughts of suicide (IPRC – Mental Health Data). Medication and other forms of treatment can help 80 to 90% of people suffering from depression (IPRC – Mental Health Data). By recognizing and treating the veteran’s mental health problems as well as their physical ones, many lives can be saved. Unfortunately, there are many barriers that prevent military personnel from seeking out or receiving the help they need.

Even though the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs offer access to behavioral health care services both active duty personnel and veterans, these services tend to be poorly utilized. Stigma remains a significant barrier, with personnel fearing that they will be thought weak or incapable if they need mental health treatment. Members are even worried that their military career could be jeopardized if they utilize these services (SAMHSA – Veterans and Military Families). Moreover, while approximately 50% of service members who needed mental health treatment actually sought help, only half of those members received adequate care.

Some mental health services are specifically available for military personnel; however, there are other resources available for the general population as well. The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has several hotlines that can help military members get help right away; one specific resource is the Veterans Crisis Line, which helps people via phone call or online chat. The National Resource Directory is a VA website that connects wounded warriors with the treatment or support they need (U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs). SAMHSA is another resource for anyone looking for mental health services. If someone is wanting to access mental health services in their state or community but does not know where to look, SAMHSA has developed an online Behavioral Health Treatment Services Locator. This allows individuals to find the kind of help they need, where they need it (SAMHSA – Behavioral Health Treatment Services Locator).

SAMHSA has also made available several screening tools that can be implemented by primary care physicians to help diagnose those who may be facing mental illnesses. Incorporating these screening tools for a variety of illnesses will allow for earlier treatment and hopefully, a lower prevalence of mental health problems (SAMHSA – Screening Tools).

Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) is a training program for anyone who would like to learn how to assess a critical situation for signs of an addiction or mental illness and help the individual in crisis. This program helps spread knowledge and awareness about mental health problems, while increasing the number of individuals who have the ability to assist someone through an extraordinarily difficult time in his or her life. MHFA also provides local resources on their website for anyone needing mental health services (Mental Health First Aid).

Mental health problems affect millions of individuals in the United States, not only those dealing with the illness or diagnosis, but family and friends as well. This is an issue that should not be ignored. The stigma associated with having a mental illness in the military or in the general population needs to be eliminated. Many factors influence the development of a mental illness, and people should not be encouraged to ignore the issue. Mental health is just as important as physical health, and individuals need to be aware of this idea.

*[For more resources on the topics covered in this article, see the IPRC HOME library e-Resources accessible from IPRC homepage or at http://www.drugs.indiana.edu/search/home-library.aspx].

By Heather Dolne 5/7/2015