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News | May 15, 2024

Mental Health Awareness Month: You are not alone; reach out for help

By Bernard Little, WRNMMC, Office of Command Communications

This year marks the 75th anniversary of Mental Health Awareness Month, observed during May and established in 1949 to increase awareness of the importance of mental health and wellness.

The White House proclamation for Mental Health Awareness Month 2024 states, “During National Mental Health Awareness Month, we recognize the bravery and resilience of the tens of millions of Americans living with mental health conditions, and we show our gratitude for the dedicated mental health professionals and devoted loved ones who stand by them every step of the way. Mental health care is health care. Two in five adults report experiencing anxiety or depression, and suicide is a leading cause of death among young people. We know that mental health treatment works.

“Each one of us has a role to play in changing the narrative and ending the stigmatization of mental health issues. We can start by showing compassion, so everyone feels free to ask for help, and learning the warning signs of emotional distress and suicide,” the presidential proclamation adds.

What is mental health?

“According to the World Health Organization (WHO), ‘Mental health is a state of mental well-being that enables people to cope with the stresses of life, realize their abilities, learn well and work well, and contribute to their community.’ I agree with this definition,” states Army Col. (Dr.) Aniceto Navarro, director of Behavioral Health at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center (WRNMMC).

Navarro and his Behavioral Health team at Walter Reed agree that mental health is essential for a person’s overall health.

“When I think of good mental health, I think of the power in becoming a student of your own mind, body and soul,” Navarro explains. “Research tells us that the human psyche hasn’t changed much in the last 10,000 years. Our hearts and minds are built for a horse-and-buggy society, but I don’t know if you’ve noticed lately – that’s not the world we live in. We’re expected to be ‘on’ all the time, and when we’re not, we’re either wrestling with our own FOMO (fear of missing out) or the guilt and shame from those around us whose needs never seem to end. We are multi-tasking our way into epidemic levels of chronic and stress-related diseases. But it doesn’t have to be that way. We can exercise healthy boundaries, learn to do the hard work of slowing down and listening to what our bodies are trying to tell us and make those small changes that over time can lead to a more grounded and purposeful life. The signs are there if we have the courage and support to learn the language.”

Elizabeth I. Jones, a licensed clinical social worker at Walter Reed, adds, “A lack of life event balance contributes to poor mental health.
Psychological well-being is attained by achieving a state of balance affected by both challenging and rewarding life events. Psychologist Carol Riff’s theory proposes that the six factors that contribute to an individual’s psychological well-being, contentment and happiness are autonomy, environmental mastery, personal growth, positive relations with others, purpose in life and self-acceptance.”

Lack of any or a number of these factors can contribute to an individual’s poor state of mental health.

Poor mental health

“Poor mental health is most often experienced as a diagnosable behavioral health disorder, for example, major depressive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, PTSD, OCD, sleep disorders. While symptoms among most behavioral health diagnoses vary, a common feature for nearly all is clinically significant impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning,” Navarro adds.
He shares that signs of mental health challenges depend on the concerns. “In general, if one self-reflects [and] finds burnout/lack of zest for life, brain fog, fatigue, inability to find things pleasurable/rewarding, these are reasons to consider seeking help.”

Military challenges

“The unique opportunities provided by military service come with challenges that can affect the mental health of service members and [their families],” Navarro states. “Starting with abrupt transition to a disciplined environment away from social supports, temporary feelings of increased anxiety or isolation may be common.”

“Continuing through training and assignments where performance is demanded, self-esteem and feelings of self-worth can be vigorously tested,” Navarro continues. “Social and occupational stress related to military moves can challenge even the most flexible family members as they work to establish friendships and meaningful employment.

Deployment-related stress is a near-unique, hallmark constellation of operational risk, [and] time away from family, demanding work hours, uncertainty, and near continuous contact with other service members,” are additional challenges, Navarro shares.

He adds that reintegration after deployment can also present stress when household expectations may have shifted while the service members has been away.

“Later, choices about reclassification, educational opportunities, and re-enlistment are critical decision points. As time in uniform accumulates, physical injuries or chronic pain may further challenge mental wellbeing. Toward the end of a career, whether transitioning after a single honorable enlistment or retiring after decades, military families face the reverse process. Having navigated to the military’s culture and subcultures, service members adjust to new careers, longer-term homes and less structured social systems. Separating leaders may have anxiety about the future of the people and formation they have led. Many seek continued public service to balance a new sense of citizen identity that honors service in a new phase of life.”

“At each stage, self-care, interpersonal skills, and in some cases, mental health support, are demanded,” said Navarro.

Mental health and young people

In addition, youth also have stressors which may cause mental health challenges.

Carrie Cleveland, also a clinical social worker at Walter Reed, explains that people’s mental health, especially those of young people, can be negatively impacted by social media. “Constantly looking at posts that only show the good and never the real can create a false impression of what life really looks like for everyone. Your mental health will be poor if you are comparting your worst to someone else’s best.”

Alexandra Coleman, also with Walter Reed’s Directorate of Behavioral Health, cautions against social isolation and loneliness.

“Children in today’s society are in a much more complex and sophisticated digital world and are often exposed to a social media environment filled with stressors and conflict that once never existed,” Navarro adds. “It is important that parents and caregivers educate children about the dangers of the internet and responsible age-appropriate media usage. Furthermore, children in recent years dealt with the trauma of the COVID pandemic, which inexorably altered how many kids view the world, their safety in this world, and their relationships. It is vital that parents and caregivers reassure their children that they will do everything in their power to keep them safe and provide them with access to care at all levels and in all environments.”

Improving mental health

He adds that ways people can improve their mental health is to have a good will, drive or attitude about life. “Make peace with your emotions and train them to be smarter. Have a working theory of right and wrong. Realize that moral rules have no exceptions. Morality is valid for all rational beings. Truth does not change, facts do though.”

“Also, don’t poison yourself with intoxicating substances such as alcohol, drugs and pornography,” Navarro continues. “Realize that you are not alone.”

There is help

Suicide is a serious issue for service members and their loved ones — and suffering from a mental health challenge can increase the risk. If you or someone you know is at risk, the Military Crisis Line is available 24 hours a day. Call 988 and Press 1. You can also start a conversation via online chat (https://www.veteranscrisisline.net/get-help-now/military-crisis-line/) or text (838255).

If you or someone you know needs support now, call or text 988 or chat at 988Lifeline.org. 988 connects you with a trained crisis counselor who can help.

Walter Reed provides behavioral health clinical services. The Adult Outpatient Behavioral Health Clinic can be reached at 301-295-0500, and the Child & Adolescent Outpatient Behavioral Health Clinic can be reached at 301-295-0576. Also, Social Work and Grief Support is available at 301-295-1719 and Addiction Treatment Service is at 301-400-1298.

In addition, if you are feeling overwhelmed or just need someone to talk to, ask your health care provider, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s National Helpline at 1‑800‑662‑HELP, or visit FindSupport.gov.
Don't forget to keep your family's information up-to-date in DEERS.