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08 Oct 2020

You are Not Alone: Navigating Mental Health

Unfortunately, mental health stigma exists, and there is no exception within the military. The good news is that the stigma is starting to change, and people are beginning to view the importance of mental healthcare similarly to that of physical healthcare. For example, people are more encouraging and supportive than they previously were of seeing a therapist or taking medications to address mental health concerns. Also, there are more programs available to assist those who have mental health challenges, as well as programs for their families; however, there is still much work to be done to eliminate the stigma. This article discusses the impacts of mental health on the individual and their loved ones, available programs, lifestyle changes that can help mitigate mental health challenges, and lastly, suggestions when someone close to you is navigating mental health challenges.

Impacts of Untreated Mental Health Concerns

Mental health, for the purpose of this article, can be understood as the level of an individual’s psychological well-being or the absence of a mental illness. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) in 2017, one in five U.S. adults were living with a mental illness (46.6 million); therefore, if you are concerned about your mental health, you are not alone. What is important, is addressing mental health concerns as they arise. If mental health challenges are left untreated, they may lead to a wide variety of problems including: an increase in symptom severity, relationship problems with friends and family, unemployment, homelessness, poverty, and risk to the individual’s safety. So, it is important to recognize if you, or someone you know, is having a problem; take steps to address the problem and continuously monitor the status of your mental health.

Impacts of Untreated Mental Health Concerns on Loved Ones

When an individual is struggling with their mental well-being, whether that be depression, anxiety, or other mental health diagnoses, it also impacts their loved ones. This manifests itself in a few different ways: the spouses of individuals battling mental health may feel unable to or unsure of how to help their partner, and this can lead to feelings of helplessness, inadequacy, frustration, or even anger with their partner or themselves. Children also feel the emotions their parents carry, so if a parent is experiencing mental health concerns that have not been attended to, it could lead to the child exhibiting behavior problems such as aggressive outbursts or deliberately disobeying. Further, unaddressed mental health concerns could lead to marital distress. Research suggests that military couples were more likely to meet the criteria for major depressive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder, substance abuse or dependency, and suicidal ideation if they were experiencing marital distress. Therefore, addressing both relationship factors and mental health simultaneously is important and can be done by the couple meeting with a Marriage and Family Therapist.

Programs Available to Address Mental Health Concerns

The programs Independent but Not Alone and the VA Readjustment Counseling Service/Vet Center Program address both mental health concerns and also relationships of the individuals seeking treatment (i.e., family and friends). For example, the Vet Center provides services to families—not just Service members and Veterans—which foster a more holistic, familial approach in addressing mental health, and they are offered both online and in-person. Continue reading below to learn more about the programs.

Independent but Not Alone VA Readjustment Counseling Service/Vet Center Program

The Independent but Not Alone program is a web-based intervention for military spouses who need extra assistance managing the demands of military life. The program focuses on competence, autonomy, and relatedness (i.e., being able to relate your experiences to others). This 10-week, online program has been evaluated for its effectiveness and results are promising. Upon completing the program, participants reported higher levels of self-esteem and lower stress, anxiety, depression, and loneliness.

Participants were placed in small groups with other military spouses also seeking mental health reprieve; therefore, this program might also provide an outlet for those struggling to connect with others who are in the same position as them.

The VA Readjustment Counseling Service/Vet Center Program (henceforth known as the “Vet Center”) is comprehensive in that it provides counseling to eligible Veterans and active duty Service members including the National Guard and Reserve components, and their families. There is no cost affiliated with these services and no time limitation, meaning that there are unlimited sessions available to the Service member and their family. The aims of the Vet Center are twofold: to reduce the stigma around Veteran mental health and to increase the service utilization among Veterans with a mental illness.

The Vet Center’s main areas of assistance are family counseling, and services for those who experienced combat trauma and military sexual trauma. Services are also provided to family members who have experienced the death of a Service member. Of note, Service members, Veterans, and their families do not need to be enrolled in VA healthcare, have a disability, or be connected to the VA or DoD to utilize Vet Center services.

If these programs are not exactly what you or your family need, consider looking for other resources in your area that may suit you and your family better. This may mean finding an individual therapist for the family member experiencing mental health concerns or finding a family therapist to work with the family unit.

Lifestyle Changes that Promote Improved Mental Health

Research suggests that there are different lifestyle choices individuals can make to assist with their mental health struggles such as exercising regularly, drinking plenty of water, and eating a healthy, well-balanced diet. These are suggestions the whole family can participate in! Consider going for walks as a family, having a ‘water drinking contest’ to see who can drink the most ounces in a week, or cooking a healthy meal together. You should contact your doctor or physician if you continue to experience negative mental health symptoms upon implementing healthier lifestyle changes.

When Your Loved One Struggles with their Mental Health

When your loved one struggles with their mental health, it can be overwhelming. Encouraging him or her to seek help is not always easy; therefore, ask for help. Asking for help can look different for different people, but you might consider calling your primary care physician and explain what is happening, calling a friend who has been through something similar to what your loved one is going through, or just confiding in someone you trust so you feel less alone. It is also important to take time to make sure you, as a caregiver, are taking care of yourself by doing things you enjoy, such as exercising, gardening, spending time with friends, reading a book, or taking a bubble bath. Some signs that might suggest someone you love needs extra help include, but are not limited to: long-lasting sadness or irritability; extreme high and low moods; excessive fear, worry or anxiety; social withdrawing; and dramatic changes in eating or sleeping (either too much or not enough).

I encourage you to seek help if you or someone in your family is struggling with mental health concerns and extend this help to others if they need support as well. You can do your part in decreasing the stigma associated with seeking mental health assistance by reacting positively when someone discloses that they are seeing a therapist or that they are taking medication, such as an anti-depressant. Also consider encouraging your friends/family to see a therapist if they are having difficulty with an issue they cannot manage alone—maybe that means driving them to their first appointment. Most importantly, respond and interact with people the way you would want them to respond and interact with you. Kindness goes much further than judgement!

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