Family members have a unique role to play in the mental health of our nation’s veterans. With the current system overwhelmed by mental health service needs and unable to provide adequate access, family members serve at the critical front line of our veteran’s mental health needs and are the backbone of veteran recovery.
Readjusting to civilian life for a returning veteran comes with a unique and unexpected set of difficulties that can disrupt relationships with their loved ones. In addition, they live with a heightened risk of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) that could further exacerbate pre-existing mental health issues. Due to the stigma of mental illness and the burden of reintegration, these struggles often go unspoken, leaving both veterans and their family members feeling misunderstood and unheard. For veterans, these feelings deepen an already growing sense of isolation and vulnerability.
In 2009, according to the American Psychological Association, the suicide rate for 18- to 29-year-old male veterans rose to record highs. In fact, veterans have a higher rate of suicide than the national average, reaching a rate of 22 suicides per day. Earlier this year, the House of Representatives passed the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans (SAV) Act, which requires an annual evaluation of VA suicide prevention programs to determine their effectiveness. The legislation, now awaiting approval from the Senate for the second time in two months, includes a vital increase in the number of psychiatrists at VA facilities. It was named for the Marine veteran activist who took his own life in 2011 after living with PTSD, an illness that affects more than 20% of service members nationally.
For military families navigating a mental health system where the demand for services outweighs supply, family members often feel as if they must stand in as mental health service providers and experts. This added responsibility can create fear, anger, and confusion for both family members and their loved one. To combat these stressors and be effective partners in the recovery of their loved ones, family members need both informational resources and a support network. At NAMI, we are addressing this need through our new NAMI Homefront program, an adaptation of the evidence-based NAMI Family-to-Family program, a general education program for family members of individuals living with mental illness. In the NAMI Homefront course, we focus on PTSD, collaborative problem solving, and how to offer constructive support to a veteran.
Since 2008, we’ve worked with our local VA to support military families. Our NYC NAMI Homefront program started as one of 6 pilot programs in the country; the others are Illinois, Maryland, North Carolina, Ohio, and South Carolina. We pay special attention to meeting families where they are at in terms of understanding the landscape of veterans’ mental health services and navigating the resources available to them. In particular, we are dedicated to creating a supportive social community where family members feel that they have a voice not only in their loved one’s recovery but in their own self-care. While never a substitute for mental health services, NAMI Homefront does serve as an important component in the recovery process for military families.
As a nation, it’s imperative that we create an environment where veterans feel comfortable speaking up about their mental health without fear of judgment. Family members are a critical component in their recovery process. However, we must remember that in order for family members to be effective, they too need education about mental health resources and an active support community.