At No Fallen Heroes we are dedicated to the reduction and elimination of suicide among US military veterans. Mental health issues like depression and post-traumatic stress disorder are known to be significant risk factors for suicide among all parts of the population. However, mental health is a continuum that ranges from mild conditions to significant problems that end up being treated by mental health professionals. In other words, mental health is not just the absence of mental illness that carries a diagnosis from a professional.
What Is Mental Health?
The most accurate definition of mental health is that it is the state of well-being that lets folks deal with life’s challenges, work effectively, learn what life offers, realize life’s potential for them, and contribute to their families and communities. Mental health is the underpinning that helps us build relationships, make decisions, and act upon the world around us. It is decidedly more than the absence of a mental illness diagnosis. Mental health is experienced differently from person to person based on their own makeup and both the opportunities and challenges that life throws at them.
What Determines a Person’s Mental Health?
Mental health is not something that is determined by our genes and then stays fixed for life. Many of life’s experiences lead to maturation and strengthening of mental health. Others serve to undermine the mental health of a person and predispose to more problems as life progresses. Individuals vary across a continuum in their ability to cope with challenges to their mental health in that for some people a challenge will lead to stronger mental health and for others the same issue will be damaging. Difficult environmental, geopolitical, economic, and social conditions affect how mental heath is developed and maintained. Specifically, violence, poverty, and environmental deprivation are factors that damage the development and maintenance of good mental health.
Risk Factors for Mental Health
During childhood development there are periods when mental health can be substantially strengthened or damaged. Physical punishment and harsh parenting are known to be risk factors for later mental health problems. And as one grows and matures, living in a safe family, safe neighborhood, getting a good education, finding good work, and having healthy social relationships all serve to foster a healthy mental state throughout life.
Mental Health Risk Factors for Veterans
Military service can serve to strengthen mental health or damage it. For some the military provides a home, comradeship, and a sense of purpose. For others, separation from loved ones and support systems are difficult. Add the stress of combat, being in harm’s way, seeing comrades die, and having the sense that one is alone against the enemy without support of the country or the current political and social system and previously good mental health can be damaged. It is important to realize that a military veteran does not need to have a diagnosis of depression, PTSD, traumatic brain syndrome, or substance abuse disorder to have mental health issues that make life more difficult and cloud the path to success upon military discharge.
Rates of diagnosed depression, PTSD, substance abuse, and other mental health issues have all gone up in recent years among veterans. It does not take a rocket scientist to understand that the rates of undiagnosed variations on these conditions are also more common. On one hand it is important to identify those whose mental health issues are of such a magnitude that they impose undue burdens and risks to the veteran such as an increased risk of suicide. On the other hand it is important to help those veterans who fall below the thresholds for professional treatment but whose lives are nevertheless impaired by mental health challenges.
Steps to Maintain and Improve Mental Health
Social isolation is a factor in poor mental health and veterans who just left military service are at the greatest risk of marital or relationship breakup, having trouble finding work, and reintegrating into civilian life. Ways to deal with these issues include joining volunteer organizations, churches, support groups, or sports organizations where one finds companionship and friends. Another issue for veterans is the tradition of self-reliance which, unfortunately, keeps the veteran from asking for help. This is a skill that veterans need to learn in a civilian life that is typically much less structured than life in the military.