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How the military can lead on mental health and COVID-19

How the military can lead on mental health and COVID-19
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For many, 2020 has been a long and arduous year. It has included a complex interplay of personal, professional, and community-based challenges resulting from ongoing public health pandemics, civil unrest, and general life stressors. The current environment can contribute to feeling overwhelmed and isolated — both of which factor into risk of suicide.

Few people have not been touched by the tragedy of suicide. It is estimated that, on average, there is a suicide attempt made every 26 seconds and a death by suicide every 11 minutes in the United States. During National Veterans & Military Families Month, it’s worth emphasizing how the military and veteran community benefit from well-funded, data driven prevention programs. Despite the number of suicides increasing in the military and family member populations, the rate remains comparable or lower than the non-military community. Recent findings also show that the suicide rate decreased for Veterans engaged in recent VHA care.

Throughout September, numerous organizations shared stories and resources to help reduce the stigma around mental health, to increase help-seeking behaviors, and to reduce suicide ideations. Military leaders shared their personal mental health stories through a DOD-sponsored campaign and encouraged people to reach out, particularly in the context of COVID-19, something that was unheard of 20 years ago when America entered the Longest War. General Hyten, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, underscored the equal importance of physical and mental health and shared how he received the help he needed from a psychiatrist and was stronger for it.

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Military leadership has long been emulated by the private sector. Encouraging help-seeking behavior and sharing a personal journey from the top has proven to create a positive ripple effect and impact through an organization or community.

COVID-19 exacerbated a number of suicide risk factors across the nation as a whole — as well as unique risk factors within the military community. President TrumpDonald TrumpIran's leader vows 'revenge,' posting an image resembling Trump Former Sanders spokesperson: Biden 'backing away' from 'populist offerings' Justice Dept. to probe sudden departure of US attorney in Atlanta after Trump criticism MORE’s Executive Order on Saving Lives Through Increased Support For Mental- and Behavioral-Health Needs issued on October 5, 2020 acknowledges COVID-19’s impact on stressors relating to economic wellbeing, and — what we see as most critical — social isolation.

Based on the published priorities of the Biden-Harris team, we can expect an even greater focus on wellbeing and protective factors for all Americans under a Biden-Harris administration. Military families have long been a priority for Vice President and Dr. Biden, based on an understanding that military families face challenges specific to the disruption in returns from deployment, moving, spouse employment, and childcare — all issues that affect military readiness.

So, what works and how can we strengthen those programs?

DOD’s myriad well-funded resources to military service members and their families include unmatched 24/7 behavioral health support, short term help to manage the stressors of military life through their Military Family Life Counselors (MFLC), Military OneSource, and other mental and behavioral health resources.

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DOD could take these resources one step further by leveraging industry assets — informed by data and analytics — to precisely target at-risk communities with the intervention resources they need. Clean, deep, and rich data is the best foundation for understanding complex issues of the human condition.

The military holds a unique advantage of having an elevated level of visibility and input into service member’s social determinants of health (e.g. housing, education, socio-economic status, etc.) and, as a result, risk and protective factors. However, this insight does not cover the entire military community. Despite NDAA requirements and ongoing efforts, there is a lack of data for military family suicide and this creates obstacles to proper prevention and intervention strategies. While the DOD has multiple data and analytics capabilities which measure and track various risk and protective factors for military readiness and wellbeing, Service organizations, non-profits, public health professional organizations, and private firms can play a key role in data collection to inform a more complete and holistic picture of the lives of military families.

Tapping into the remarkable power of publicly available and consolidated datasets could elevate the DOD’s approach to, and understanding of, suicide prevention by enhancing visibility into deaths occurring off the installation while maintaining protection of military families’ privacy. Using transparent guidelines and responsible restrictions on the data (e.g. aggregating at the community level, interpretation by subject matter experts in public health and epidemiology, etc.), the government could better understand trends, identify hotspots, and target those specific areas with localized and culturally sound interventions. 

Crisis Resources

  • If you or someone you know is in an emergency, call 911 immediately
  • If you are in crisis or are experiencing difficult or suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Hotline at 1-800-273 TALK (8255). They also offer a live chat online feature: https://SuicidePreventionLifeline.org/chat/
    • This hotline includes the Veterans Crisis Line/Military Crisis Line (Option 1) which is a free, confidential resource that provides Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) support for all Service members, including members of the National Guard and Reserve, all veterans, and their families, even if they are not registered with VA or enrolled in VA health care
  • If you’re uncomfortable talking on the phone, you can also text CONNECT to 741-741 to be connected to a free, 24/7 trained crisis counselor on the Crisis Text Line

Rosemary Williams is the former deputy assistant secretary of defense for military community and family policy, as well as the former assistant secretary for public and intergovernmental affairs at the Department of Veterans Affairs. She currently is specialist executive at Deloitte Services LP and serves on five nonprofit boards in support of the military and veteran community.

Meaghan LeMay is a specialist senior at Deloitte Consulting LLP focused on behavioral health within military and veteran communities; she supports federal clients to increase protective factors and decrease risk factors ahead of a point of crisis to support psychological health and wellbeing in various populations.