It is no secret that a significant number of veterans struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other mental health-related illnesses due to their experiences as service members within the U.S. armed forces. Almost 20% of all OEF/OIF veterans are currently diagnosed with a mental health disorder.

What is not often discussed is the impact it makes on their family, friends and loved ones. As a veteran’s primary source of support, immediate family members have a first-hand look at the daily struggles of their loved one. However, research indicates a severe lack of knowledge and support for the mental health of veterans and their families.

The U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs recently published national and state suicide reports for 2019. Suicides for Oklahoma veterans were significantly higher than the national general population suicide rate, but were not substantially different from the national veteran suicide rate. The highest rates of suicide occur in rural Oklahoma, where access to mental health care is scarce.

Yet accessibility to services is changing, with the pandemic, including limited face-to-face care, online and tele-health care and virtual support groups have grown drastically. The national suicide rate dropped 6% in 2020, while Oklahoma experienced an increase, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Researchers pointed to the increased access to mental health care via virtual means as one of the possible reasons for the decrease nationwide.

Helping a loved one cope with experienced trauma can be an arduous and burdensome task. Luckily, many organizations and programs are available to provide assistance to aid veterans and their loved ones through the healing process.

The National Council for Mental Wellbeing (NCMW) has implemented a program called Mental Health First Aid (MHFA), whose aim is to teach family members to identify, understand and respond to the needs of their veterans, from mental health to substance abuse.

“When more people are equipped with the tools they need to start a dialogue, more people can get the help they need,” wrote Betty Kitchener and Anthony Jorm, founders of MHFA. Kitchener is a nurse specializing in health education, and Jorm is a mental health literacy professor.

In addition to increasing the participant’s mental health knowledge, the MHFA program aims to grow an individuals’ knowledge of signs, symptoms, and risk factors of mental illnesses and addictions. The program helps participants identify types of professional resources and self-help resources to aid the entire family in supporting their veteran.

Tasha Billingslea, community education manager for Resilience Behavioral Health at St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center, is a certified instructor for MHFA; she can be reached by calling the hospital at (580) 233-2273.

The Veterans Crisis Line (VCL) provides support via phone, chat and text for all veterans, service members, National Guard and Reserve members, and their family members and friends. This free, confidential resource is available at (800) 273-TALK (8233). To text with a responder, text a message to 838255.

Additional resources are available at any of the VA locations. To speak with a VA coach, call (888) 823-7458, Monday through Friday. To learn more about PTSD, visit www.ptsd.va.gov. Additional resources can be found at www.mentalhealthfirstaid.org/ and www.mhanational.org/.

Clark and Edens are students at Northwestern Oklahoma State University. Clark is a veteran and Edens is the mother of service member on active duty.

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