By Greg Davis
Many people battle mental health challenges on a daily basis, including many of our veterans, in the form of post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and anxiety, among other forms. Research suggests that up to 16% of U.S. service members deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan have post-traumatic stress disorder or depression. However, veterans don’t have to deploy to experience traumatic events or mental health strains. In fact, many enlist as a result of past traumatic experiences, viewing enlisting as an opportunity to change their lives. Regardless of the root of one’s mental health challenges, those challenges are real and should be addressed.
May is Mental Health Awareness Month and an ideal time to educate veterans and their families on the conditions that encompass mental health and how to seek help if needed. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has more than 11,000 mental health care professionals providing support to veterans and their families, making it the country’s largest provider of mental health services. The VA’s mental health services include peer support with other veterans as well as counseling, therapy, and medication. Additionally, due to their background and experience, VA health care providers are able to understand veterans’ mental and physical health needs on a deeper level and apply that knowledge to ensure that each patient’s unique needs are addressed.
If you or someone you know is a veteran who urgently needs mental health support, use the VA’s confidential and free 24/7 crisis line accessible at (800) 273-8255 or via text at 838255. To receive services outside of a crisis, veterans who already use VA medical services should ask their primary care provider to help make an appointment with a VA mental health specialist. Veterans who are not currently enrolled with VA medical services can locate the nearest VA medical center to discuss available support.
There are also many health care options outside of VA medical services. Workers whose health insurance is through their employers should understand what protections are available for mental health and substance use disorders. The Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act (MHPAEA) requires the majority of health plans to apply similar rules to mental health and substance use disorder benefits as they do to physical health benefits. For example, health plans must charge comparable copays for mental health services as they would for physical health services. If you suspect that a mental health claim has been wrongfully denied, under the MHPAEA you have the right to request information about the limitations of the health plan and file an appeal.
In addition to providing valuable health care benefits, employers can play a critical role in destigmatizing mental health conditions at work by fostering a mental health-friendly work culture. A workplace that is welcoming and inclusive to people with disabilities benefits from increased employee morale, loyalty, and productivity. To assist with this cause, federal contractors, covered by section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act, may encourage those with mental health conditions to self-identify as people with disabilities. Via self-identification, job candidates may be eligible for a Schedule A appointment if they have a severe physical disability, psychiatric disability, or intellectual disability (For more information, see Office of Personnel Management).
All in all, one of the most important messages to communicate during Mental Health Awareness Month, as it always is, to veterans and civilians alike is that you and your loved ones are not alone in dealing with mental health challenges. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, nearly one in five adults in the United States may experience some form of mental illness each year, and for many, the pressures of the pandemic have made it worse. You are not alone. Mental health, like physical health, is part of being human, and there are resources available to help.