THE DANGEROUS SHORTAGE OF MENTAL HEALTH SERVICES FOR ACTIVE DUTY MILITARY
By Anna Kim
While members of the military are serving the country and doing their best to protect the people, it certainly does not come without risks. Many of these people suffer from mental health issues, but there’s a shortage of mental health services for active-duty military members, making it difficult for them to get the help they need.
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The Need for Mental Health Services for Active Duty MilitaryMany members of the military with mental health struggles typically suffer from three main problems: depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and traumatic brain injury (TMI). These issues aren’t uncommon, as military members may have to encounter, experience, and perform certain tasks that the average person would not. While these conditions can be difficult to manage, it’s important for service members to have good mental health in order to perform their responsibilities efficiently. The Department of Defense (DoD) encourages those with mental health issues to get treated. Patient privacy is ensured, as the DoD follows the guidelines of HIPAA and the Privacy Act. However, if the mental health problem seems to pose a danger to others or the individual, the care provider must reveal the information to the chain of command. Currently, there are military therapists and counselors for when service members need help with their problems. On top of that, the DoD provides Military OneSource, which offers a free service for military members and Vets to call a number and discuss their issues. There are also military psychologists who conduct research and treat emotional and mental disorders. However, these psychologists and other mental health servicers have seemed few and far between lately for military personnel.
Tackling Mental Health Issues in the MilitaryWhile there are military mental health services available, it simply isn’t enough. The shortage has led troops to rely on friends and family to get the help they need. Friends and family members, however, are not trained counselors and aren’t always equipped to help service members to the level they need, which could lead to dangerous outcomes for military personnel who are struggling in the battle with mental health. The military is working to increase the number of behavioral health providers by using military personnel to fill the roles of mental health jobs. Sergeant Major of the Army Michael Grinston encouraged people to attend the Army Wellness Center at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, to help with mindfulness and stress management. He also emphasized how relying on friends and family is a good way to cope, but it’s not a permanent solution.
Seeking Help in the MilitaryFrom 2016 to 2020, 456,293 service members had at least one mental health diagnosis, and another 84,815 had mental health problems in relation to lifestyle issues, family, or substance abuse. Mental health also came to the forefront of concerns when there were seventeen people who died by suicide in Alaska back in 2021. Army leaders have aimed to promote mental health treatment and to get rid of the stigma surrounding psychiatric help. At the annual meeting of the Association of the U.S. Army, mental health seemed to be the most popular concern for service members and their families. Army Secretary Christine Wormuth made it clear that she had seen military mental health counselors and therapists throughout her career. In an attempt to destigmatize seeking help in the service, she said, "Taking advantage of behavioral health resources, that is actually a sign of strength, not a vulnerability… It's helping yourself solve a problem, and there's nothing to be ashamed about when it comes to doing that."
The Next Step for Military Mental Health Services for Active DutyThere’s seemed to be an increase in the use of virtual mental health services and primary care. For example, 20% of appointments regarding mental health in the Navy were done virtually in 2021. That’s not to say that change doesn’t need to be made. The Air Force is looking to increase access to mental health care. Currently, they want to have more counselors and therapists practice in more remote locations where it might be difficult to gain access to psychologists and mental health workers. The Army’s also working with the Defense Health Agency to relocate uniformed personnel to work in areas where behavioral health professionals are limited. With the shortage of mental health services for active-duty military members, defense and service officials have taken steps to relieve these concerns. There’ll be a pilot program set to start some time in fall 2022 to test a behavioral health staffing model. There’ll be psychiatric physician assistants, licensed mental health counselors, professional counselors, and marriage and family therapists. Telebehavioral health appointments are also planned to increase to 63,500 visits this year. Officials and leaders are taking the right steps in order to improve mental health in the military, but there’s still a long way to go.
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