Scheyett: Military members deserve more than ‘thank you’

Guest ColumnistMay 11, 2014 

Anna Scheyett

— The brave men and women who serve our country deserve our support, and a heartfelt “thank you for your service” from each of us. We can never forget what they have sacrificed for our freedom, and I am proud that South Carolina has a well-earned reputation for supporting its military members.

But as a social worker, I know that while our gratitude is important, it is not enough. Members of the military and their families face numerous stresses before, during and after deployment. The emotional toll of being in the military, and being in a military family, can be high.

The recent tragedy at Fort Hood is a stark illustration of the stresses and emotional pain experienced by many members of the military. It also highlights the need for accessible and effective mental health services for military members and veterans.

A recent study by the National Institute of Mental Health examined the tragic phenomenon of suicide in the Army. Looking at the records of nearly 1million soldiers, the study found that the rate of suicide in soldiers who served in Iraq and Afghanistan more than doubled from 2004 to 2009. Surprisingly, the rate of suicide for those who were never deployed rose to a similar high rate (about 30 per 100,000, compared with civilian rates of 19 per 100,000).

Such studies and tragedies serve as reminders of the responsibility we have to support our military members in wartime and in peace. Our responsibility doesn’t end at reintegration; we must think about long-term needs, from healing battle wounds to tending the emotional needs of children growing up in a home where a parent was deployed multiple times.

Often those who most need a helping hand are reticent to reach out for one. This may be particularly true in the military, where service members are trained to be disciplined, stoic and independent. While the stigma of mental illness thankfully has declined, and the Defense Department and VA are working to shift perceptions about mental illnesses and emotional distress, old stereotypes still exist.

Military members may view their own depression and other emotional issues as signs of weakness. Others fear admitting to problems may cost them the respect of family, friends and colleagues, or endanger their careers. Even when service members or veterans ask, getting appropriate help in a timely way can be hard. Though the VA has increased funding for mental health service by more than 60 percent, additional providers are needed.

It’s heartening that South Carolina is rising to the occasion. From veteran job fairs to National Guard service member and family care services, Yellow Ribbon events, veteran treatment courts and churches with veteran ministries, our communities are working to make South Carolina a welcoming and supportive place for military and their families.

The Military Social Work Initiative at the University of South Carolina’s College of Social Work was developed to help address the needs of military members, veterans and their families. We are engaging in research to better understand the challenges faced by military families, with a goal of developing interventions to help with recovery, rehabilitation and resilience. In addition, we have developed a graduate certificate in social work services for military members, veterans and their families. Finally, we have begun a continuing-education series for helping professionals in the community, so that anyone — be it a teacher, a nurse, a community social worker, a doctor or a guidance counselor — can better provide support.

So, to all our members of the military, veterans and their families, I say a sincere “thank you for your service.” I also want you to know we are making it part of our mission to provide you with the supports and services you deserve.

Dr Scheyett is dean of the USC College of Social Work; contact her at amscheye@mailbox.sc.edu.

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