Honor the fallen by supporting mental health for the living
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President Trump’s recent indication that the U.S. will be sending additional troops to Afghanistan is an important reminder of the significance of Memorial Day.

Memorial Day is a solemn occasion when our nation honors the brave men and women who gave what President Lincoln called, “their last full measure of devotion” in the name of freedom. One such service member we remember is Marine Sergeant Rafael Peralta who pulled a grenade under his body on November 15, 2004, while clearing houses in Fallujah in order to save two fellow Marines.  

While we pause to reflect on the service and commitment of Sergeant Peralta and all who fell, one way we can honor their memory is to ensure that their fellow service members, whom they sacrificed to save, enjoy a mentally fit civilian life.

Sadly, researchers have found that after U.S. forces began withdrawing from Afghanistan in 2011, death by suicide surpassed war-related deaths — making it the second leading cause of death, after accidents, among active service members in 2012 and 2013. Furthermore, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) estimates that up to 20 percent of U.S. military personnel who served in Iraq or Afghanistan, about 400,000 Veterans, have Post Traumatic Stress (PTS). To put this figure in perspective, that’s nearly the equivalent of the population of Wyoming. Many other Veterans suffer from depression, isolation, anxiety, and adjustment disorder. There is an unprecedented demand for care.  

However, the demand for care is not limited to Veterans. More broadly, 1 in 5 Americans have a mental health condition. The opioid epidemic has crippled parts of society; the annual number of overdose deaths involving prescription and illicit opioids has nearly quadrupled since 2000. Yet, the nation faces a chronic shortage of mental healthcare providers. According to the U.S. Health Resources & Services Administration, 10,000 additional providers are needed for each of seven separate mental healthcare professions by 2025 to meet the expected growth in national demand.  

Our nation must prioritize mental healthcare so that it achieves parity with physical healthcare. This begins with how society treats its Veterans. While the VA has made strides in increasing access to mental healthcare, it alone cannot address this crisis.

As a Marine and former Assistant Secretary at the VA in the Obama Administration, I firmly believe that tackling the veteran’s mental health crisis requires a commitment from myriad sectors: public, private, non-profit, and local communities. In addition to their own programs, the VA should continue to invest in community organizations such as Headstrong, who have the capacity to provide individualized cost-free treatment to a substantial amount of post-9/11 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, who may or may not qualify for VA care, and have proven results.

Of the 250 veterans who have completed Headstrong’s program, 92 percent reported reduced suicidal ideation, 91 percent reported improved mood, and 89 percent resorted to using less drugs and alcohol.

Additionally, communities can do the following today to make an impact:

  1. Embrace The Campaign to Change Direction, which asks advocates, colleagues, family members, and friends alike to “Know the Five Signs” of a mental health issue: personality change, agitation, withdrawal, poor self-care and hopelessness.

  2. Learn how to engage Veterans who may be struggling via free online modules at The PsychArmor Institute.

  3. Help loved ones to seek care in a stigma-free manner at VA facilities, Headstrong providers, private care, local support groups, and by joining Veterans’ organizations like Team Red, White, and Blue, which augment clinical care by providing an inclusive community focused on patriotism and fitness in myriad chapters throughout the country.

Finally, systemic and systematic investment is required across all steps of the talent funnel to make the mental health discipline more attractive to students in the classroom, more lucrative to practitioners, and more appreciated in society.

Every Marine learns the Corps’ 11 leadership principles, one of which is to “Know your Marines and look after their welfare.” This Memorial Day as we pause to reflect and remember, let us honor those who fell by looking after the welfare of those they served with by committing to eradicating stigma and improving access to mental healthcare across America.

Maura C. Sullivan is a Former Assistant Secretary at the VA, a former Assistant to the Secretary of Defense, U.S. Marine and Iraq Veteran. You can find her on Twitter: @maurasullivan.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.