Opinion Extra

Howard: Veterans need help defeating mental illness

Today, approximately one in four American adults suffers from a mental disorder. As we work to help all those affected by mental illness, I want to call attention to one group in particular that is perhaps suffering most greatly.

Over the past several years, several thousand military veterans have returned home from Iraq and Afghanistan. Unfortunately, they carry with them the memories, stresses and traumas from their multiple deployments abroad. The Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance reports that more than 35 percent of Afghanistan and Iraq veterans treated at VA medical facilities have been diagnosed with some type of mental disorder. This alarming number does not include the under-diagnosed and those who suffer silently.

While mental illness transcends race and culture, African-American veterans encounter additional obstacles in tackling and defeating it. Cultural barriers and stigmas associated with mental health in the African-American community make it more difficult for them to seek support to overcome mental illnesses.

Upon returning home, African-American service men and women face several problems regarding mental health: (1) They do not have the access to proper mental health care; (2) they choose not to seek treatment due to the stigmas associated with it; or (3) they do not realize they are affected by a mental illness that requires medical attention.

Cultural competency continues to be a leading reason African-American military avoid seeking treatment for mental illness. Several studies indicate that African-Americans feel most comfortable seeking treatment from medical professionals who share their culture, but fewer than 5 percent of the psychiatrists and psychologists in our country are African-American. As a result, African-Americans are far more likely to seek help from a primary care physician or visit a hospital emergency room, which often leads to misdiagnosis or under diagnosis.

So what can we do?

As a community, we must learn more about mental illness, the socioeconomic barriers to treatment and the cultural stigmas associated with it.

We need to educate others so they can be empowered to recognize the signs of mental illness and be responsive in providing support to those in need of care.

We also should inform our legislators on the importance of caring for all of our returning veterans. I urge our state and federal legislators to increase the availability of educational programs and resources; establish and strengthen programs to eliminate the socioeconomic barriers to adequate care; increase mental health funding for our veterans through Medicare and Medicaid; and increase funding for mental health counseling for our military and their families.

On Friday, the National Black Caucus of State Legislators will host its 16th annual Mental Health Conference to engage state legislators, health care professionals, community leaders and the public on ways they can participate in improving the mental health of African-Americans. Broadcast live from Indianapolis, the conference also will be offered via satellite to Columbia. The public can view the conference live online at http://Nbcsl.framewelder.com.

One of the paramount topics will be military and veterans affairs relative to mental health.

I encourage all of you to get involved and become part of the solution. The more we understand, the more we can do to ensure the health and well-being of our communities as a whole.