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This year, our nation’s military continues to face the possibility of increased deployments after nearly 15 years of war. Our servicemembers and their families have always stood as steadfast pillars of strength; however, their constant sacrifices add stress and uncertainty to everyday living.

Deployment, war, uncertainty and separation from loved ones carry a toll on mental health. Military commanders recognize the importance of a resilient force, and part of that resilience relies on military families’ mental well-being. A critical factor in addressing their mental health needs is ensuring access to appropriate care providers and settings.

A 2015 Blue Star Families survey revealed that almost one-quarter of servicemembers, veterans and their families had received mental health counseling in the past year. Yet, among those, nearly two-thirds were seen by civilian mental health professionals. As the demand for mental health care increases, important cultural barriers as well as cultural competency issues need to be addressed if we are to ensure the long-term mental well-being of servicemembers and their loved ones.

Many civilian behavioral health providers do not feel prepared to care for the military and veteran populations. According to a 2014 Rand/United Health Foundation report, civilian mental health providers are less familiar with military culture and evidence-based treatments for post-traumatic stress disorder and depression than care providers in Department of Defense or Department of Veterans Affairs facilities. Only 13 percent of civilian care providers were prepared to deliver culturally competent and evidence-based care to a military and veteran population.

To address these and other concerns, Blue Star Families and UnitedHealth Group met with leading health policy, military and veteran-research organizations to identify solutions for improving mental health access, and developing innovative, effective ways to connect military populations with appropriate mental health resources and support systems.

Participants in the discussion recommended:

1) Creating a culture of mental wellness with a focus on prevention. Real opportunities exist to improve mental health care through early identification and treatment of mental illness. To take this a step further, we should create systems to identify and target at-risk individuals and families for preventive mental wellness support services. We need to recognize that many servicemembers, veterans and their families need to actively manage their mental wellness before it becomes an issue. That requires expanding and leveraging peer models, dispelling mental health myths, and incorporating prevention strategies and lifestyle activities that encourage mental well-being.

2) Strengthening the health care system’s ability to deliver effective mental health services to the military community. This involves educating care providers to better understand military culture and evidence-based clinical guidelines. Additionally, given the shortage of mental health providers — especially culturally competent practitioners — flexibility is needed to allow practice across state lines.

3) Telemedicine services that can expand access to culturally competent, evidence-based care. We can bring mental health services to members of the military and their families — particularly those who live in rural and underserved areas — by using new technologies to communicate remotely, and by modernizing payment policies and practices to embrace technological advances. Virtual access to quality psychiatric care has resulted in more coordinated care for veterans, reduced hospital admissions and improved patient outcomes, according to multiple studies.

DOD and the VA have made significant strides in improving mental health care for servicemembers, veterans and their families. These include expanded suicide-prevention efforts, increased research funding, and initiatives to meet current and future demand — including an increase in the number of mental health professionals. The meeting’s recommended solutions can accelerate and augment these efforts, leveraging best practices from both the public and private sectors.

Addressing the mental health needs of those who serve and their families is a national priority. The need is growing, and requires a collaborative effort across all sectors — government, private and nonprofit.

Blue Star Families and UnitedHealth Group were grateful for the opportunity to host this discussion and are committed to helping ensure that resources are dedicated to meeting these needs. Together, let’s improve access to culturally competent, prevention-oriented mental health and wellness services for our nation’s servicemembers, veterans and their families.

Kathy Roth-Douquet is Blue Star Families’ chief executive officer. Lambert van der Walde is executive director of UnitedHealth Group’s Center for Health Reform & Modernization.


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