The U.S. military can lead the way in mental health and suicide prevention
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Guest post from Barbara Van Dahlen, Ph.D., Executive Director of PREVENTS Executive Order Task Force
Today, institutions are increasingly being held accountable for their impact on the environment, society and their own workforce. As employers consider their strategic priorities for the coming decades, including how to meet these new expectations, the current mental health crisis is a challenge in need of immediate action. It will take firm cross-sector commitment to change the paradigm around mental health and create healthier communities.
Employers are becoming more proactive in fostering a culture of mental health by improving benefits and reducing stigma to help all employees become more productive citizens and workers. An urgent component of this work is suicide prevention: the overall rate in the United States increased by more than 33 percent between 1999 and 2017. It is the second leading cause of death for people 10 to 34 years of age, the fourth leading cause among people 35 to 54 years of age, and the eighth leading cause among people 55 to 64 years of age.
Because of several factors – some related to service to our country – our military and Veteran communities have an especially high risk for mental health challenges and suicide. Over the past six years alone, 45,000 Veterans and active duty service members died by suicide—more deaths than the total number of combat deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan combined. Indeed, suicide rates for our male Veterans are one-and-a-half times higher than those of non-Veteran civilians, and women Veterans have a rate that is twice as high as their civilian counterparts.
The unique mental health challenges of military personnel and Veterans present an incredible opportunity for the military and Veteran communities to lead in a powerful way. The U.S. military is the largest employer in the world, and its influence on those who serve is virtually unmatched.
In addition, the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs have made impressive progress in increasing the capacity of their mental health workforce, improving depression screening and encouraging evidence-based treatments. Further, on March 5th, 2019, the President signed Executive Order 13861 to amplify and accelerate the progress that has begun to address the suicide epidemic in our nation. The PREVENTS (Presidents Roadmap to Empower Veterans and End a National Tragedy of Suicide) is a cabinet level interagency effort charged with developing the first ever public health approach to address suicide.
Research will be a key piece of the PREVENTS effort and any strategy to improve treatment for Veterans, our military and all of America. Fortunately, much work has been done around PTSD and many efforts – including a comprehensive suicide prevention approach from the RAND Corporation – focus on developing strategies for those who serve and their families. Of course, caring for military personnel and Veterans requires understanding their unique challenges:
Fostering smooth and lasting transitions back into civilian life
Ensuring that Veterans have stable and meaningful career options after service is critical to preventing suicide and can give a sense of purpose after military service. One way to improve these career pathways is to promote multidimensional public-private partnerships that not only incentivize private sector employers to hire Veterans, but also hold that Veterans receive high-quality care as part of their benefits – especially peer-to-peer support.
Increasing access to preventative care and enhancing crisis response
Preventative care and crisis response are respectively the first and last lines of defense against suicide, and services in each area must be robust and easy to access. However, leadership is needed. Our employers, including the Department of Defense, can help ensure that our Veterans and employees understand how to access help when and how they need it; they might also encourage and incentivize contractors to make mental health a priority for those who leave the military and join the private sector workforce.
Creating a culture of mental health from boot camp to life after the military.
Those who serve in the military face the barrier of overcoming the idea that being “fit for service” means being able to handle emotional pain and suffering without seeking help or complaining. While this culture of mental toughness clearly has tremendous value within the military, it makes it difficult for those in need to seek the help they deserve. Educating the men and women who serve about the importance of caring for their mental fitness – just as they do their physical fitness – as well as helping them learn to identify their risk for depression and suicidal ideation are ways to remove potential cultural barriers.
It’s only by engaging all of our institutions – and influencers – that we can create real change in mental health and suicide prevention. As one of the most influential institutions and cultures in the world – with some of the most influential leaders – our military and Veteran community can lead the way.