Opinion Extra

We need to talk about military mental health

Soldiers march during graduation day ceremonies at Fort Jackson in September.
Soldiers march during graduation day ceremonies at Fort Jackson in September. online@thestate.com

With Fort Jackson’s upcoming centennial celebration, South Carolina is paying special tribute to the state’s military community for its incredible service to our country. A line-up of events throughout the year will honor our servicemen and women and bring attention to our strong community.

One aspect of military life that deserves attention from both loved ones and the larger community is the mental health of our service members and veterans, more than one in five of whom suffer emotionally.

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VA expands mental health care for discharged veterans

Thanks to veterans, Fort Jackson for serving our country

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Often, service members come home diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, which can lead to depression and ultimately substance abuse. Unfortunately, they do not always receive the support they need. Their family and friends do not know how to identify the signs, and even if they do, they may not know what to say. However, to prevent further suffering, loved ones need to acknowledge and address these problems as early as possible.

Five signs of emotional suffering make this identification process easier: personality change, agitation, withdrawal, poor self-care and hopelessness. This list was compiled by the Campaign to Change Direction to make friends and family of military members aware of the behavioral changes that indicate emotional distress.

Left unattended, a mental health problem can spiral out of control quickly, but the clear, identifiable five signs can help establish a dialogue between service members and veterans and their loved ones. Taking the time to talk about mental health is the best way to become comfortable with the topic and identify solutions.

Many organizations in South Carolina have made it their mission to provide help for the military members who exhibit the five signs. From transitional assistance to activity-based therapy, these organizations provide diverse methods for maintaining or improving emotional well-being.

The S.C. Coalition of Military Mental Health Awareness provides a central space where military members and their loved ones can search for the specific resource that will best fit their needs and introduce them to organizations that they otherwise would not know. Most importantly, the coalition has fostered an open dialogue about mental health issues among our troops.

Working with the Campaign to Change Direction, the coalition is encouraging organizations and individuals to make a pledge to know the five signs of emotional suffering and to change the culture surrounding military mental illness, and wellness.

As a force recon Marine veteran and president of My Carolina Veterans Alumni Council, I believe supporting active servicemen and women and veterans who struggle with PTSD is critical. It is engrained in everyone who signs up to serve this great nation that you will never leave a brother or sister behind. That mentality shouldn’t end once you leave the battlefield.

Far too often, the real battle begins when we return home.

Dedicating ourselves to helping those we served with, and other fellow servicemen and veterans who struggle with PTSD, is one of the strongest signs of support that we can provide, and it is the absolute least we can do.

Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin said it best when he declared Feb. 24 as Military Mental Health Awareness Day in Columbia: “South Carolina is thankfully home to such a large military population that’s embedded in our community. It’s our responsibility to normalize conversations about military mental health to ensure our community is stronger, healthier and happier.”

In this year of celebration for the men and women of Fort Jackson who serve our country, it is important to recognize that their job is not an easy one. It takes a physical toll on their bodies and a psychological toll on their minds. As we spend afternoons at parades, let us also take time to learn about the mental health of our military community and try to recognize a hero who could use a concerned friend.

Sgt. Evans is president of My Carolina Veterans Alumni Council; contact him at evansmj@mailbox.sc.edu.

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