Vets need mental health services

Last Thursday’s tragic events at Fort Hood have certainly shone a spotlight on mental health and our military.

While we are all trying to figure out what may have led to the disturbing shootings that ended the lives of 13 of our country’s bravest and finest servicemen and women, we know one thing for certain: our active military and veterans — those returning home for the first time and those who have been stateside for a while — need better help in receiving adequate mental health care.

Although we are making progress, the truth is we are unprepared as a country, as communities and as individuals to adequately treat our veterans for traumatic combat experiences; we must also learn how to successfully reintegrate our veterans into civilian life.

These deficiencies have caused thousands of men and women to endure the crushing burdens of mental illness in solitude.

There is no hiding from it — we all know someone who suffers from mental illness. About one in four Americans has a mental disorder, and one in three Iraq and Afghanistan veterans do. This is a real problem that demands concrete solutions. Simply put, we must do more.

In addition to physical danger, our servicemen and women are exposed to mental traumas during deployment. Upon return, they must face the battlefields of marital struggles; financial hardships; job challenges; physical ailments; and the task of just getting to know their family and friends again after being gone months or years at a time.

Although mental illness affects all races and ethnicities, I would like to call attention to some of the specific challenges our African-American veterans face in this area.

The cultural stigmas associated with mental illness in the African-American community cause us to lose some of our most promising individuals; we owe it to them to never let this happen.

African-Americans living with undiagnosed and untreated mental illnesses are reluctant to admit that they may have a problem for fear of rejection by their own families and communities. The stigmas associated with mental illness are so strong that many African-Americans would rather admit to having a relative in prison than having one with a mental illness.

African-Americans dealing with mental illness also fear using the mental health system itself. Historic misdiagnoses and a lack of cultural understanding between patients and doctors have created a serious mistrust of mental health services and treatments.

Becoming knowledgeable on the subject matter is the first step we all need to take in order to become more responsive to the needs of our various communities.

Churches, community organizations and local governments can help educate communities by hosting mental health forums.

Ministers can make mental health a topic of their sermons and encourage community outreach efforts.

Not-for-profits with a focus on mental health care can provide educational materials and experts to help spread the word.

With greater awareness of mental illnesses, we can offer better screening, treatment options and support networks to encourage those suffering from mental illnesses to seek help without fear of reprisal or adverse social consequences.

It is our goal and mission at the National Black Caucus of State Legislators to advocate for more funding for mental health care at our local veterans hospitals and centers.

We remain committed to securing mental health funding through policies and programs that support our veterans and their families at the community level.

We want to facilitate partnerships between local veterans offices and area churches, advocacy groups and community organizations.

It will take concerted leadership at the community and legislative levels to overcome barriers to adequate mental health treatment for our active military and veterans.

It is shameful that our soldiers face such challenges when they return home; we cannot abandon them.

State Rep. Calvin Smyre (D-Columbus) is president of the National Black Caucus of State Legislators.