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Walter Reed Strives to Remove Stigma From Mental Health Care

By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, May 8, 2008 – Troops need to feel as comfortable seeking mental health care for combat-related stresses as they are getting treated for physical injuries, the commander of the health care system at Walter Reed Army Medical Center here said.

“The wounds we keep inside ourselves are just as important and need to be treated as equally as we treat those outwardly physical wounds,” Army Col. Patricia Horoho, a registered nurse, told the Pentagon Channel. “We want to make sure we are treating the whole person.”

Pointing to the military’s heavy emphasis on physical fitness and wellness, Horoho said it’s time for the institution as a whole to recognize the piece psychological health plays in the equation.

That’s particularly important as troops deal with the stressors of combat, agreed Army Col. (Dr.) John Bradley, Walter Reed’s chief of psychiatry. A recent Rand Corporation study noted that 20 percent of combat veterans experience some symptoms of psychological distress after returning from a deployment. Bradley said the percentage typically increases with multiple deployments.

“The [Department of Defense] recognizes that war is bad for your health. It’s bad for your emotional health, and it’s bad for your physical health,” he said. “So we want to be very aggressive about opening up the doors to treatment for soldiers in distress.”

The goal, he said, is to encourage troops to get treated early to reduce the risk of more serious, long-term problems.

The military is promoting that goal by working to decrease the stigma of seeking mental health care, Horoho said.

A big step in that direction is the Defense Department’s decision to change a question on the government security clearance form referencing an applicant’s mental health history. “Question 21” on Standard Form 86 specifically asked applicants whether they ever received treatment for mental health issues.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates announced last week that combat veterans who seek mental health care for deployment-related issues no longer have to report it on the form.

“This is a very important change for us,” Bradley said. “The ultimate goal in this change of policy is really to de-stigmatize seeking mental health care.”

The emotional distress many troops experience after returning home from combat are “absolutely normal,” Horoho said. “Everybody who is deployed is going to have some kind of reaction,” she said. “It’s OK.”

Troops typically know when they are doing well psychologically and when they need help, Bradley said. They “expect to experience distress, get ramped up and be on edge in combat.” In fact, Bradley calls it one of the factors that helps keep them alive.

But once they return home and settle back into the groove of garrison and family life, troops should expect to return to their normal baseline, Bradley said. If they don’t, that’s the time to seek help.

Walter Reed and other military medical facilities offer a full array of services to treat troops experiencing combat distress, Horoho said.

Mental health treatment has proven to be effective in helping people “get back on their feet so they can continue on with their careers and be productive members of the military … and have a positive outcome in the future,” Bradley said.

“Treatment for combat-related problems is effective, [and] it’s available,” Bradley said. “I really recommend that soldiers in distress, after feeling their own pulse [and feel they are not making a smooth transition] get the treatment you need so your future is not affected by the complications of an untreated illness.”

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Related Sites:
Walter Reed Army Medical Center
Special Report – Question 21: Removing the Stigma

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