Mental health professionals talk to Congress about taking the stigma out of mental health issues for soldiers

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One in three U.S. military personnel with post-traumatic stress never seeks treatment, according to a recent survey of 4,000 military family members.

Mental health professionals from various branches of the military told Congress on Wednesday that the biggest challenge to getting service members to seek help is the stigma of mental illness.

The U.S. military is trying to make it easier for active duty and former personnel to use mental health services. Democratic Congresswoman Grace Napolitano of Norwalk and members of the Mental Health Caucus heard about increased support from military leaders who say mental health professionals improve the “operational readiness” of their units.

Navy psychologist Dr. John Ralph told members that every branch of the military has started "embedding" mental health professionals within units.

"A traditional model for mental health care," he said, "is that a service member may have to take off work, drive to the hospital, see a mental health provider, explain to his or her boss why he or she is gone for that many hours. And it’s difficult to do that for many reasons."

Embedding also increases the trust of soldiers and sailors for psychologists and psychiatrists.

But Colonel John Forbes, director of psychological health for the U.S. Air Force, said the best way to get airmen to seek help is assure them they’ll keep their jobs after they do so.

Forbes said the Air Force retains 75 percent of personnel diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder.

"So when you’re thinking about what reduces stigma, it’s what happens to that individual," said Forbes. "If they’re going to be separated, or if some bad thing’s going to happen to their career, that’s obviously going to raise stigma on an organizational level."

The Veterans Administration reports that it’s addressing mental health issues with about one in four veterans who seek health care services. That’s more than a million vets reporting traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety disorders.

The VA is now trying to reach military people where they are. So far, they’ve downloaded the VA’s new “PTSD Coach” mobile phone app more than 55,000 times. The app contains a self-assessment and connections to mental health professionals.

The VA is also promoting an interactive website with hundreds of short videos where service members tell their own story about mental health issues. The Make the Connection website is being advertised on billboards, via text messaging, and there's even a QR code that will take mobile phone users directly to the site.

Last year, the Defense Department reported 282 military suicides.

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