Beginning in 1999, Congress officially designated May as Military Appreciation Month. It is intended as a specified time in which we are encouraged to show our appreciation of all those who serve in one of the six branches of the United States Armed Forces. As a veteran and longtime supporter of our military, I recently posted a piece highlighting some of the ways we can demonstrate thankfulness and show support. I included things such as volunteer work at a Veterans Affairs hospital or by contributing to the Armed Forces Giving Program.
But in parallel with this month of May observation is another opportunity for reflection that relates to military service. May is also Mental Health Awareness Month. It has been observed in the United States since 1949. The organization Mental Health America releases a toolkit mid-March each year to guide preparation for outreach activities.
The intersection between these two distinct entities and observations cannot be overlooked. Whether we are talking about civilians, military servicemembers or veterans, we are all in the midst of a battle for mental health that requires the engagement of all hands if we are to prevail.
Pointed out in April on theconversation.com by Amitai Abramovitch, an associate professor of psychology at Texas State University, “the most comprehensive study to date examining the worldwide prevalence of mental disorders projected that 55% of Americans will meet criteria for at least one mental disorder over the course of their lifetime.” This study was conducted 15 years ago, and its focus was limited. “In fact, the prevalence of lifetime experience of clinically meaningful symptoms in the general population is much higher,” writes Abramovitch.
Says mental health advocate Dottie Pacharis in a recent opinion piece posted on Yahoo: “Every year in the U.S., one in five American adults experience a mental health disorder that can affect their ability to work and form relationships. According to the Treatment Advocacy Center, severe mental illness affects 8.8 million Americans and 4.2 million of them are being left untreated.”
As recently reported by Jennifer Steinhauer of the New York Times, “The suicide rate among active-duty service members increased by more than 40 percent from 2015 to 2020, according to Defense Department data. The military had historically lagged the general population in suicide rates but in recent years has caught up. A report last year from the Costs of War Project at Brown University found that an estimated 30,177 active duty military personnel and veterans who have served since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks died by suicide, compared with the 7,057 killed in military operations during the two-decade war against terrorism.”
“The problem mirrors a larger crisis in the nation, with millions of Americans lacking access or not seeking mental health care,” Steinhauer says.
“After two decades of war, the military has yet to make significant progress on what many experts, lawmakers and service members say are among its most persistent problems — unaddressed mental health issues and rising suicide rates among troops,” she says.
“Despite the efforts of both the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) and the Veterans Health Administration to enhance mental health services, many service members are not regularly seeking needed care when they have mental health problems,” concludes a recent RAND Corporation analysis.
While the stigma attached to mental health remains a huge problem within the general public, military personnel who seek help for a mental health disorder feel it tags them with a “marked identity” that can ruin a career. The analysis goes on to say that “policy language barring service members with mental health disorders from career opportunities could create paths for discrimination. Tensions exist between the privacy of service members seeking mental health treatment and the need for commanders to assess unit fitness.”
“We are taught to mask anything that is wrong with us, to adapt and overcome,” Sherman Gillums Jr., a retired Marine officer and a former senior executive at Paralyzed Veterans of America, explains to the Times. “Military culture looks at asking for help as a liability, from recruitment to training to the rest of one’s career.”
“There is stigma, it persists and it is real,” adds Elizabeth S. Pietralczyk, a family doctor in Alaska who joined the Air Force in 2003. She left in 2021 before hitting her lifetime pension award because of her mental health struggles. “People doubt your sincerity when you’ve done an amazing job at handling everything up until it implodes,” she said. “It is a common story.”
“The readiness of the force depends on the strength and resilience of every soldier,” said Simon B. Flake, an Army spokesman. “It takes a self-aware, courageous soldier to admit they need help,” he adds. He tells the Times that the Army has now increased support services for enlisted personnel.
Writes Steinhauer, “The message of resilience at all costs is necessary for war fighters, but it can ultimately backfire, military leaders and experts say.”
You could say that after nearly three decades of highly decorated service in the Army, Maj. Gen. Ernest Litynski is now changing the rules of engagement. When standing in front of new formations of Army Reserve troops, he will certainly talk about physical fitness and training. He will now always add to it “the story of his own unraveling after he returned from Afghanistan, when he would sit in his darkened basement, ignoring his family and staring into nothingness,” says Steinhauer.
“Being a man, you don’t talk about your feelings,” says Scott Alsup, who served under Litynski in Iraq. “Having someone who was not afraid to show that was a huge, huge relief … He helped get me into rehab, which probably saved my life.”