Federal agencies can play a critical role in supporting the mental health of their veteran workforce
Special to Stars and Stripes October 31, 2023
On Veterans Day and throughout the year, we recognize our nation’s heroes for their service to our country. Even after their time in uniform has ended, many of those who served continue to fight internal battles. Today, military suicide rates have reached an all-time high. The Pentagon’s Defense Suicide Prevention Office reported the number of suicides in the United States military increased 25% in the first quarter of 2023 as compared to the same period last year. Leadership at federal agencies can play an important role in reversing this heartbreaking trend by fostering an inclusive workplace environment and taking the initiative to increase awareness, offer resources and connect their veteran employees with a network of health care professionals.
While the federal government has taken steps in the right direction to address veteran mental health needs, such as Congress’ introduction of the bipartisan Veterans Mental and Behavioral Health Quality of Care Act of 2023, legislation is slow to make its way through the hallways of the U.S. Capitol when time is of the essence. A Military Medicine study found that service members transitioning from active duty to civilian life are at high risk of substance abuse and may turn to alcohol and drug use as a way to cope with trauma, anxiety, physical pain and depression.
As veterans transition into post-active duty employment, federal agencies can support the process by fostering a healthy and welcoming workplace culture. According to the National Library of Medicine, “social connections can act as a buffer against the impact of stressful or negative life experiences on mental health.” Agency leaders who offer a sympathetic ear and make personal connections can make all the difference during an overwhelming time. Agency leadership must also prioritize and incentivize mental and physical wellness programs as a preventive measure.
Veterans may not be aware of the resources available to them, or they may be hesitant to seek care. This emphasizes the significance of normalizing mental health and wellness as part of the workplace culture and removing the stigma surrounding mental health. It is important to educate workers on self-care techniques and healthy workplace behaviors, especially for the nearly 31% of federal employees who are veterans. This could include meditation, yoga, access to gyms and physical training facilities, or the use of support animals. The ways to counteract symptoms will vary, so it is important to support an array of options.
Stress in and outside the workplace takes a toll on everyone’s mental and physical well-being. This is especially so for veteran employees grappling with service-related health conditions and the added strains of transitioning from active duty. Federal agency support programs and access to mental health care professionals, counselors and behavioral specialists help veteran employees navigate and cope with new stresses.
Too often, the burden to seek help is unfairly placed on veterans. Agency leaders are encouraged to become familiar with a variety of Department of Veterans Affairs resources so they can educate their veteran employees on the advantages of using them. Federal agencies should send regular reminders to their workforce about Employee Assistance Programs and the licensed mental health professionals available 24/7. For instance, the VA’s suite of mental health apps enable veterans to be more involved in their care by accessing resources that allow them to practice coping skills and track and manage symptoms between visits.
Agency leaders should also keep a list of community resources like the local American Legion or Veterans of Foreign Wars, which are great places to go for support. Connecting veterans to others in the workplace who share similar experiences and have an underlying camaraderie is another benefit.
It’s clear that too many veterans are silently fighting a battle long after they transition from active duty. Leaders should be trained to look for indicators that an employee may need additional support. Scheduling weekly individual check-ins with team members and making a concerted effort to focus on the employee in a holistic sense, not solely on their work output, helps build rapport and trust. They should also consider partnering with behavioral health specialists to develop and implement interactive training programs for their federal workforce that normalize mental health and cultivate empathy.
Veterans Day is an opportunity to focus on the importance of proactively addressing our nation’s heroes’ health and wellness needs. But we should uphold this call every day. Rather than placing the burden on veterans to find the mental health help they need, government employers need to take the initiative to promote resources, welcome and support veterans joining their teams, and cultivate a culture of caring before it is too late. We owe it to our veterans to take a people first approach in the workplace to show we truly care and are thankful for their selfless sacrifices.
Support is available for veterans who are having thoughts of suicide and for those who are concerned about someone who may be at risk. Call the Veterans Crisis Line at 988 and press 1, send a text to 838255, or visit www.veteranscrisisline.net.
Dr. Tifani Gleeson, MD, MPH, FACOEM, is the chief medical officer at Sedgwick Government Solutions. Prior to this role, Dr. Gleeson served in numerous leadership positions in the U.S. Navy, including as associate director of the occupational and environmental medicine residency program, Uniformed Services University.