The Army is joining in promoting mental health during May, which is celebrated as Mental Health Month under the sponsorship of Mental Health America, formerly known as the National Mental Health Association. The theme for 2008 is "Get Connected," emphasizing the valuable support people gain by connections with family, friends, community and mental health professionals.
"Years of research have shown that individuals who feel valued and cared for are better equipped to deal with stress and adversity, and even experience less severe illnesses than those with little social support," said David Shern, president and CEO of Mental Health America.
"The importance of Mental Health Month is to raise public awareness of mental health being a significant medical issue in this country," said Col. C. J. Diebold. "It should be used as a springboard to raise continuous awareness. Mental illness is a medical disease for which effective treatments are available." Diebold is chief of psychiatry at Tripler Army Medical Center in Hawaii, and has been designated as the Army Surgeon General's expert consultant for psychiatry.
Last year Army leaders took the unusual step of ordering a chain teaching program throughout the Army. Some 900,000 Soldiers of all ranks were taught how to recognize and respond to symptoms of traumatic brain injuries (TBI) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Of special importance was command emphasis to counter a perception that Soldiers who seek mental health services are weak or malingerers.
"We're all worried about it. We've got to get rid of the stigma and that's what this education program is supposed to do," Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Richard Cody said at a press conference announcing the chain teaching program.
All leaders have been encouraged to get out the message that getting help early is the best way to avoid long-term problems.
"We can safely say mental health is an issue of great importance, and this is recognized at all levels of command in the Army," said Diebold. "It is an issue directly related to our operational tempo. The Army has addressed this in multiple ways. Mental health resources have been increased at all installations, in addition to resources such as Military One Source. Mental health support is provided throughout the deployment cycle. Soldiers are screened and provided care as needed before, during and after deployment. Families are taken care of, too."
The Army Surgeon General demonstrated the importance of mental health support by establishing the Proponency Office for Behavioral Health, a cell of experts to coordinate programs and resources.
"We seek to bring together all the diverse behavioral health policies and programs along with manpower resources. We are at the forefront of behavioral health practices today and far into the future," said Col. Elspeth C. Ritchie, the office's director.
Soldiers and families can get professional help through installation mental health clinics, and through primary care clinics using the new RESPECT-MIL program. Combat-stress control teams are deployed to bring front-line assistance to Soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. Chaplains, social workers and installation drug abuse or family violence programs also can help deal with aspects of mental health issues.
All deploying Soldiers receive "Battlemind" training to help them prepare for the stresses they face in combat, and another round of training to help them adjust to returning home. There is Battlemind training for families, too, to help them deal with the special stress of having a spouse or parent deployed.
Military One Source is a 24-hour, toll-free telephone hot line to connect military service members with a variety of support services. By calling 1-800-342-9647, Soldiers or family members can arrange civilian mental health counseling without charge.
A wealth of information for Soldiers and families is available at www.behavioralhealth.army.mil on the World Wide Web.
Concern for Soldiers who need mental health support does not stop even after they leave the service. "The Department of Defense is working closely with the Department of Veterans Affairs to ensure Soldiers making the transition to civilians continue to get high quality mental health care," Diebold said.