Op-Ed - Henry: Mental health must be priority
Greg Barnes and John Ramsey's series "The Last Battle" lays out, oh so clearly, the challenges facing our military and its families after 11 years of war. The statistics are sobering - suicides rising at an unprecedented rate, with Fort Bragg leading the nation; substance abuse in our force so severe as to be characterized as a public health crisis; and family members receiving mental health diagnoses at a rate far exceeding their civilian peers. We are in crisis, with the solution, so far, elusive.
Here's a proposal to combat this complex problem: Mandate annual behavioral health exams for all service members.
The military already embraces preventive medicine as the best approach for ensuring the health of the force in many areas. Aviators receive annual flight physicals in order to maintain their flight status. Annual dental visits are a must for all, as are annual flu vaccines and a laundry list of other immunizations. Why not take this same approach with behavioral health? As an added benefit, the stigma of behavioral health would disappear, since everyone would have to go.
I'm not talking about the post-deployment survey that most see as nothing more than a paperwork drill to complete as quickly as possible. Instead, every member of our force should sit down with a behavioral health professional for at least one hour per year and get a thorough assessment. The specialist could screen for depression, PTSD, substance abuse, sleep disturbances, self-medication, health of family relationships, and any other issues that may present themselves. If the service member is healthy, nothing more needs to be done for that individual. If problems are identified, however, treatment can begin before there is a crisis.
Providers in communityBehavioral health specialists are a high-demand, low-density asset, but here in Fayetteville, we have additional resources that other communities may not enjoy. The Behavioral Health Professionals Association, a consortium of over 150 providers, was created to meet the growing needs of our community. They are working hard to gain a better understanding of military culture, resources and processes, and they want to help. Let's find a way to include them in the care of our service members.
The Veterans Administration is another potential partner. Behavioral health issues identified and treated while an individual is still on active duty will save VA resources in the long run.
Both Fayetteville State University and Methodist University have social work programs. Surely there is a way to incorporate these professionals in training into a program to address the behavioral health crisis facing our military.
It's time to stop talking about the problem and start taking action. Getting our soldiers in the front door of behavioral health, face to face with a provider, is a good start.
Kelly Henry is a member of the Observer's Community Advisory Board, which meets regularly with the editorial board to discuss local issues and contributes op-ed columns. She is a retired Navy officer and a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy. She is an Army wife and the mother of four children