Mental Health: More Than A Military Issue

By Julie Edgar
WebMD Health News

Depression should be talked about with the same candor as say, diabetes. But we have quite a ways to go in recognizing what it looks like – and stripping away the shame attached to mental health conditions, says Rory Brosius.

Brosius is deputy director of Joining Forces, an initiative launched in 2011 by first lady Michelle Obama and Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joe Biden, to help military personnel transition to civilian life. Brosius’ mission is to promote wellness in that population and beyond — service members, veterans and civilians.

She’s broadening that conversation through Campaign to Change Direction, an initiative begun last spring that hopes to change the culture of mental health in the U.S. The campaign helps raise awareness of five key signs of emotional suffering.

“We’ve treated mental health somehow different than our physical health, but it’s part of our holistic wellness,” says Brosius, a social worker by training and the wife of Matthew Brosius, a Marine who is re-entering civilian life.

WebMD talked to Brosius, 33, about the campaign and the work she’s doing to promote psychological wellness, both among service personnel and their families and the general public.

Q. What are the 5 signs that someone may be suffering from a mental health issue?

A. The key part is educating people on these five signs: personality change, withdrawal, agitation, poor self-care, and hopelessness. They’re signs somebody may be suffering. If you see them, you can reach out and help them. Because there is support that is available.

Q: What are some misperceptions people have about mental illness?

A: There are quite a few, like, people with mental illness are violent or somehow unpredictable, when the reality is that people with mental illness are 10 times likelier to be victims of a violent crime. We have stereotypical ideas of what it means to live with a mental health issue. Another one is that people assume they don’t know anyone with mental illness, but 1 in 5 American adults has dealt with a mental health issue in their life. You look around a room, someone’s dealing with it, someone’s in recovery. You may not notice it.

Q: If the signs of mental illness are subtle, how do you make ordinary people aware of them?

A: It’s not so easy to detect because it’s something we don’t talk about. [But] there are things you notice that indicate that somebody’s in pain. Forty years ago people didn’t know how to recognize a heart attack; through education we learned how to read the signs. This is a sticky and hard issue for people to talk about …it will take time, but we’ve seen the same thing with heart disease and stroke and breast cancer — it’s a matter of education.

Q: What is the best way to support someone with mental health issues?

A: There are great ways to support somebody suffering, just by being empathetic, being a good friend, listening, you can learn a lot about mental health. There are great resources –, National Alliance for Mental Health – their whole mission is to teach people what to look for. In the age of the internet and Google, we have the ability to access that information at our fingertips. But really, just being there. Maybe the person would like you to go to an appointment with them or spend time with you.

Q: Is there a different approach we might take with a service member than with a civilian?

A: In the same way you’d listen to a civilian, you would do with a service member. One benefit in that population is we have specialized resources geared to service members and their families. There is support for military personnel and their families, peer-to-peer services, warm handoff programs to service members transitioning to civilian life. There are distinct benefits to being a service member.

Q: You have written that mental health is a human issue, not a military issue. Can you elaborate?

One in 5 American adults has experienced a mental health issue. In the military, people are suffering from mental health issues just like across the population. PTSD [post traumatic stress disorder] is a signature illness, but that shouldn’t be the only issue we’re discussing. By focusing too much on specific populations we could pigeonhole people. We should be talking about this as a broader cultural perspective, about Americans going through this.

Q: What is a signature wound?

A: The signature wounds of Iraq and Afghanistan are traumatic brain injury (TBI) and post- traumatic stress disorder. There’s been a lot of focused research and work in these areas because this is what we’ve seen in our service people.

You do see TBI in other places – in our professional sporting teams you see severe concussions, and the NFL, DoD (Department of Defense) and the VA (Department of Veterans Affairs) have worked together and shared research. We see PTSD in children who’ve survived child abuse, crime victims, people who’ve been in car accidents. PTSD has made its name in the news because of the military population, but it happens in the civilian population, too.

Q: What can average people do to support the mission?

A: The reason we love Campaign to Change Direction is that it’s so simple: People can take the pledge. Go to Help us spread the message through social media. It’s my goal that people see shame fall away from mental health and think about it like when you go to the dentist.  How’s your brain doing today?

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