Capt. Robert DeMartino | U.S. Public Health Service

WASHINGTON — If you broke your arm, came down with pneumonia, or your child had a severe earache, you wouldn’t think twice about going to the doctor and getting treatment. Maintaining our health and receiving effective treatment for ourselves and our loved ones is a duty and responsibility. But what if the injury isn’t accompanied by physical pain, an X-ray finding or an abnormal lab test? What is our duty and responsibility when it comes to good mental health?

Too often, service members, retirees and their family members suffer the pain of stress, sadness and worry without considering to seek care. And while some pains, like a simple headache, can be easily cared for at home, others require the attention of caregivers who can guide you toward relief and recovery. During Mental Health Awareness Month, leaders and health care providers in the Military Health System are stressing that mental health is as important as physical health. This year’s theme, “Let’s talk about it,” encourages a conversation about mental health to reduce the stigma and encourage seeking care.

Mental health is not a luxury. It affects our quality of life and our ability to accomplish the mission at hand. Our culture stigmatizes mental health conditions and seeking treatment, but we can chip away at this stigma by examining our own beliefs about mental health and challenging ourselves to consider what health is without mental health.

In the MHS, we actively promote available resources, and encourage everyone to get the help they need. The DoD’s commitment to health care is evident through mental health assessments, counseling, family support services and treatment. The MHS shows its commitment to mental health care through unparalleled support and quality of care and by the way we allocate care. We encourage service members to ask for help, train our providers to provide the best care possible and ensure crucial resources are available.

A critical element of ensuring the mental health of our service members, retirees and their families is making it easy to find and receive care and support. The MHS provides individual, marriage and family therapy, as well as intensive outpatient and inpatient care, available both in and outside our military treatment facilities. These avenues are only part of the available support, which also includes chaplain support in all the services, Army and Marine Corps community services, Fleet and Family Support Centers, military family life counselors, crisis lines, hotlines, Military OneSource and a dozen other support programs that can directly provide assistance or get you to the right place to receive care.

We’ve updated our policies so they’re in line with the needs of our service members, retirees and their families, including an update to the TRICARE policy to ensure beneficiaries gain better access to mental health care at lower costs. The policy update removed limits on the length of stay for beneficiaries in inpatient mental health treatment and residential treatment care for adolescents and children. It also took away limits on the number of annual visits beneficiaries are allowed for various mental health services, also reducing copayments and cost-shares.

In the MHS, we hold ourselves accountable in the mental health field by keeping track of our progress. When beneficiaries ask how well we provide care, our goal is to communicate thorough and honest information. We use short questionnaires, either self-administered or given by the provider, to determine how well our beneficiaries do with the care provided and what we need to do to improve that care.

We work hard to make sure the members of the military and their families have access to support and mental health services. Taking care of our psychological well-being is a personal responsibility because mental health is a critical part of our overall health. Help raise awareness and keep the conversation going — not just during Mental Health Awareness Month, but every day of the year. 

Editor’s note: Capt. Robert DeMartino is director of Mental Health Policy for the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs.