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Another Voice: VA steps up outreach on mental health issues

By Wendy Tenhula

The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that there were 43.6 million adults in the United States with a mental illness in the past year. This number represents about 18 percent of Americans age 18 or older. Despite this, many people remain hesitant to talk openly about mental health and only about half of those who are affected receive treatment.

Because of the stigma around mental illness, as well as the misperceptions about what is treatable, many individuals will unfortunately go a lifetime without even knowing that there are resources that could improve their lives.

For instance, if your spouse breaks an arm, you go to the hospital so the arm can be placed in a cast or sling. However, many Americans – including veterans and their families – still view mental health conditions as something that they should be able to deal with on their own rather than something to get treatment and support for.

This belief, in addition to negative perceptions surrounding mental health issues and the very real fear of how loved ones, friends or colleagues will perceive them, keeps many people from seeking treatment.

At the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), we believe it’s time to talk about mental health just as readily as we talk about physical health. VA’s Make the Connection campaign was created to change the conversation about mental health by featuring personal stories of recovery from real veterans.

In many of the veterans’ videos, they say they felt they did not need or deserve care because they didn’t have physical injuries, but later realized that emotional trauma and mental illness can be just as important to treat.

It’s important to note that most of our nation’s 23.1 million veterans never experience a mental health issue – and are able to transition from military service to civilian life without major bumps or roadblocks. For those veterans who find they are having difficulty readjusting or struggling with mental health issues, there are a number of effective treatments.

The number of veterans receiving high-quality mental health treatment from the VA has risen over the past few years from approximately 900,000 to more than 1.6 million in 2015. This means that veterans across the country are realizing that there is help available, and are reaching out.

There is much more work to be done. Remind veterans in your community that their mental health is as important as their physical well-being and encourage veterans who may be going through a tough time to get the help they need, because every step forward is another step closer to living a healthier, more satisfying life.

Wendy Tenhula, Ph.D., is deputy chief consultant for specialty mental health at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.