As if we needed any more evidence of the connectivity of mind and body in determining our overall health, neuroscientists at the University of Pittsburgh have just provided it. Their study, reported in the online edition of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, has found concrete evidence for the neural basis of a mind-body connection. The findings shed new light on how stress, depression and other mental states can alter organ function, and demonstrates a true anatomical basis for what has become known as psychosomatic illness.
The research also provides an underlying neural explanation as to why activities like meditation, yoga and Pilates – even the martial arts – prove helpful to so many in modulating the body’s responses to physical, mental and emotional stress. Add to the list mental health counseling.
Yet, even armed with this knowledge, I suspect most of us react quite differently when we hear the terms “physical health” and “mental health.” And – even more to the point – to the idea of “physical illness” and “mental illness.”
It should surprise no one that there is a stigma that comes with seeking mental health care in this country. The stain of it continues to have a crippling effect on an important means of recovery. To see its consequences, we need look no further than the U.S. military. We now know all too well of the number of post-traumatic stress disorder and depression diagnoses, along with traumatic brain injuries that have resulted from years of military engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan.
As I noted in June, recently added to this list is moral injury, a condition that the therapeutic community is only now starting to confront. Moral injury is differentiated from PTSD in that it directly relates to guilt and shame veterans experience as a result of committing actions that go against their moral codes. Therapists who study and treat moral injury have found that no amount of medication can relieve the pain of trying to live with these moral burdens. Many experts believe those suffering from moral injury contribute significantly to the shocking toll of suicides among returning vets, which is estimated as high as 18 to 22 a day.
This past May, the Defense Department launched a $2.7 million service-wide anti-stigma campaign to address all this. The campaign, called “Real Warriors, Real Battles, Real Strength,” aims to bring many successfully treated people out of the shadows to share their experiences. This program is seen as a historic effort by the military to persuade active service members, not just those who are separated from service, to seek counseling whenever needed without fears that they’ll damage their careers. It’s also hoped this effort may ultimately help reduce the stigma of mental health care in American culture at large.
“We want to demonstrate that accessing care is an act of courage and connect service members to the many resources available to them,” says Navy Commander Anthony Arita, who helped to design the campaign.
“We’re creating mental health parity [with physical health] in the military,” Mark Bates, interim director of the Resilience and Prevention Directorate at the U. S. Defense Centers of Excellence, explains in an American Psychological Association cover story on the military’s “war” on stigma.
Reaching such mental health parity, and persuading some 1.4 million active-duty military personnel there’s nothing shameful about mental disorders, will require a profound transformation; and in many instances, a complete about-face.
In 2015 and 2016, Government Accountability Office analysts conducted 23 focus-group interviews with service members who complained about being called “malingerers” for seeking counseling. It was pointed out that, at one military installation, the mental health clinic is accessed by a single elevator. It was commonly referred to as the “elevator of shame,” and anyone stepping inside was quickly identified. According to a 2014 RAND study, despite a directive from the secretary of defense stating that seeking mental health care should not adversely impact security clearances, the practice continues.
But if the military can succeed in convincing its ranks that even healthy people can benefit from counseling, that mental health is as important as physical health, and that there’s nothing shameful about mental health problems, it is believed that the rest of society may follow suit; and none too soon.
According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, today in the U.S. there are more suicide attempts each year than there are first heart attacks. Suicide in the United States has surged to the highest levels in nearly 30 years. And they’re happening in some highly unlikely places.
According to a 2015 study by Gannett Health Services at Cornell University, nearly 1,100 suicides happen on college campuses each year. While mental illness may not be at the forefront of parents’ and students’ minds when they go off to college, health experts point out young adulthood is a critical period for mental health. Seventy five percent of mental illnesses are onset by age 24 according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
Now embroiled in this new front in the battle to eliminate the stigma of mental health treatment, the National Alliance on Mental Illness recently released a guidebook for students and parents. It outlines the warning signs for mental illness and resources available to students. The goal is to spark conversations between students and families around mental health issues, while also equipping them with the tools they need to intervene or seek help if necessary.
Air Force psychiatrist Lt. Col. Steven Pflanz, commander of 579 Medical Operations Squadron at Bolling Air Force Base in Washington, D.C., believes the biggest challenge in this fight is simply changing people’s minds; something not simple at all.
Write to Chuck Norris with your questions about health and fitness. Follow Chuck Norris through his official social media sites, on Twitter @chucknorris and Facebook’s “Official Chuck Norris Page.” He blogs at ChuckNorrisNews.blogspot.com.