Mental health should become a routine part of healthcare in America: for our troops, our veterans—for everybody. Veterans across the country are opening up about our post-traumatic stress (PTS) and mental health challenges because it is vital that we tell our stories, end the stigma around these issues, and make sure everyone gets the support they need. And it should be a model for everyone else.
That’s why I’m outlining a plan to dramatically improve mental health care in America, starting with our veterans. Veterans are at higher risk of mental health challenges like post-traumatic stress, and their care should set the standard for the rest of the country. Mental health care should be a regular part of American life, and veterans can lead the way in ending the stigma around these issues for good.
Here’s what my plan would do:
- Make mental health check-ups as routine as a physical for active-duty military and veterans
- – Require annual mental health check-ups just like annual physicals. Mindfulness training is preventative medicine as pioneered today by the special operations community and other elite units.
- – In addition, require a mandatory counseling session for everyone returning from a combat deployment within two weeks of arriving home.
- – Fill all mental health vacancies at the VA and adopt a more holistic approach to treatment, including alternative therapies like mindfulness, exercise, and cannabis. Fund an ad campaign for veterans’ families to recognize mental health symptoms.
- Fund yearly mental health screenings for every high schooler in America
- – Following the example of our troops, establish the importance of mental health at a young age by funding yearly health screenings for every high schooler in America.
- – Introduce mental health training (mindfulness, yoga) into the physical education curriculum of high schools in America.
- Establish 511 as a National Mental Health Crisis Hotline
- – Every day, more than 22 veterans and active-duty servicemembers are lost to suicide. More than 50% of all Americans who struggle with mental health don’t get the help they need. Establishing a single well-known, simple number to dial will help more individuals, both veterans and civilians, get the help they need before it is too late.
- – Build awareness for 511 and mental health challenges through public ad campaigns, including digital targeting for those who search for help online, and by talking more openly about our challenges to de-stigmatize these issues.
Military veterans are an incredible, and relatively small, group of Americans who volunteered to defend our nation even when it meant risking their lives. Members of the military are highly trained and effective in working together to solve complex tasks, develop leadership skills forged under the most difficult circumstances, and keep each other safe in the most dangerous situations. It is precisely these qualities and skills that make veterans so valuable to the country when they return to civilian life.
Even as we recognize and celebrate the talents and achievements of military veterans, we must also acknowledge that we have asked them to shoulder an enormous burden on our behalf. Over 6,900 U.S. servicemembers have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, and over 970,000 service-related disability claims have been filed with the VA.
As Americans, we owe it to those who defend our country—and to their families—to make sure they receive the best healthcare in the world. The rate of PTS is 15 times higher among those who served in the military than in the civilian population, and 50 percent of veterans with PTS do not seek treatment. To help them, I would double the number of DoD mental health professionals and increase the mental health budget by $500 million. Because every veteran—and every American—with mental health challenges should know that he or she is not alone. And we should all know that seeking help and support for mental health challenges does not mean that someone is broken.
We must recognize that mental health matters to everyone. We all have personally dealt with mental health challenges, or have a family member, friend, or co-worker who has dealt with them, whether we know it or not. High schoolers today are particularly at risk; in addition to the traditional anxieties of being a teenager, they face scrutiny on social media and live in a time of school shootings—all of them should get the support and care they need. We need to make sure that we all can discuss our mental health and get whatever help we may need. That is why I am telling my own story, encouraging others to tell theirs, and why I am proposing a mental health crisis hotline with a three-digit number (511) that everyone can memorize and use. PTS affects over 8 million Americans, including many who haven’t served in our military. The knowledge and experience gained treating our veterans at the VA should be actively shared with the wider mental health community.
Tens of millions of Americans deal with mental health conditions each year, including some of the most talented and accomplished people in the world. For example, the most decorated Olympic athlete of all time, American swimmer Michael Phelps, has been open about his struggle with depression. Ariana Grande, the 2016 American Music Awards Artist of the Year, has been open about dealing with PTS following the suicide attack that killed 22 people at her concert in Manchester.
Mental health is a core component of overall health: it strengthens our economy and country. Serious mental illness costs America up to $193 billion in lost earnings per year, and touches everyone in America directly or indirectly. President Obama knew this when he enshrined mental health care as an essential health benefit. We must do everything we can to protect mental health coverage in this country, and that means protecting this coverage from the current administration’s efforts to undermine these essential health benefits.
Hear my full story on my own experience with PTS here.