DOD Initiatives Counter Mental Health Issues
By Terri Moon Cronk
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, May 14, 2014 Nearly one million cases of mental health conditions in service members were documented between 2000 and 2011, according to a senior psychologist with the Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury.
In an interview with American Forces Press Service and the Pentagon Channel to mark Mental Health Awareness Month, Navy Capt. (Dr.) Anthony Arita, director, Deployment Health Clinical Center, said the 1 million cases recorded by the Armed Forces Health Surveillance Center show that mental health conditions are “quite common."
A Rand Corp. study in 2008 on the invisible wounds of war, such as post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries found one in five deployed service members returned home with significant psychological health and TBI symptoms “at a level warranting medical attention,” Arita said.
Recognized each May since 1949, DOD is promoting Mental Health Awareness Month this year to show that psychological health is “critical to one’s overall health,” Arita said, noting that sound psychological health is critical to military readiness.
“Psychological health permeates all aspects of our ability to function optimally to carry out our mission, to function at our best cognitively, to really give it [our] best,” he said.
DCOE is leveraging this month’s recognition to relay four key messages: “Psychological health is essential to one’s health, prevention works, treatment is effective, and people recover,” Arita noted.
“We have very effective treatments. [Patients] can expect their lives [to] noticeably get better, [and they] can return to active duty at a fuller level of function,” he added.
It’s also vital for people with mental health symptoms to recognize they are not alone in their struggle, Arita said.
“We recognize when people have concerns about their psychological symptoms, there is a reluctance to step forward and seek care,” Arita said. “We see it in people who need it most.”
The Defense department has come far in its understanding and treatment of psychological illnesses, he said.
“We’ve been able to answer a lot of questions about psychological health to promote normalization and seeking care. But there’s still more to be done. While we’ve done much to combat the stigma around seeking treatment, we still have significant challenges ahead of us,” he said.
Arita said key to meeting the challenges is to understand the stigma against psychological conditions and treatment.
“There’s a need to address the stigma at a cultural level, and getting at the biases, prejudice and discrimination is tough to do to gauge progress,” he said, “Yet DOD is taking this on.”
Resources abound in the area of military mental health. One such outlet is a “living blog” appearing this month on DCOE's website. Service members, veterans and families can post questions about mental health, and psychology experts provide answers within 24 hours, Arita said. Questions have so far have included identifying the signs and symptoms of PTSD, how it impacts deployment, and moral injury.
Launched in 2009 as a help-seeking resource, the Real Warriors Campaign features success-story vignettes of people of all ranks and demographics who faced tough challenges and sought the care they needed, he noted.
The vignettes, Arita said, “highlight how care and recovery made a difference in their lives. They have given people the ease of thinking, ‘If they can do it, I can do it too.’”
In one of its newest initiatives to diagnose and treat psychological ills during early onset, DOD is placing behavioral health specialists in military primary care facilities for use by service members, families and retirees.
A range of issues such as depression, PTSD, anxiety, stress, grief, relationship problems, sleep difficulties, obesity, chronic pain, diabetes, tobacco use and other substance challenges often can be treated effectively in primary care, Arita said.
Because some people might not feel comfortable approaching mental health specialists, they often are at ease with their primary doctors, and by staffing such specialists, the Military Health System is making dramatic changes in the way behavioral health concerns are identified, assessed and treated within the primary-care setting, he said.
“As part of the DOD Primary Care Behavioral Health initiative, all three services have implemented or greatly expanded programs that integrate behavioral health services into primary care,” Arita said.
To learn about the signs, symptoms and treatment of psychological ills, contact the DCOE Call Center at 1-866-966-1020. Anyone in a psychological crisis should call the Military Crisis Line at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
(Follow Terri Moon Cronk on Twitter: @MoonCronkAFPS)