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Walk to raise awareness about mental health timely on Memorial Day weekend

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As it was reported in the Chambersburg Public Opinion, around 280 people attended the 14th annual Franklin and Fulton Counties' walk to advocate for awareness about mental health and to decrease the biases that exist about people with these disorders. The Walk the Walk event was held on Friday, May 23 and was a way for people to show support for individuals with a mental health disorder to encourage them to seek care to be healthy. One advocate spoke about how when she first learned that she had a mental illness that she wished to have cancer instead because of the stigma that exists about people with mental health issues. With 2013's budget cuts in human services, Pennsylvania has less funding available to provide services which means that community organizations are left without resources to fill continued needs. For the past 65 years, Mental Health Month is observed throughout May. Organizations like Mental Health America work to "build public recognition about the importance of mental health to overall health and wellness; inform people of the ways that the mind and body interact with each other; and provide tips and tools for taking positive actions to protect mental health and promote whole health." The theme for 2014 is "Mind Your Health" and media, local events, and screenings are used to increase public awareness to people throughout the nation to focus on their health and wellness.

To support this initiative, President Obama signed a Presidential Proclamation on May 1, 2014 designating this month National Mental Health Awareness Month. The press release from the White House states, "We too often think about mental health differently from other forms of health. Yet like any disease, mental illnesses can be treated -- and without help, they can grow worse. That is why we must build an open dialogue that encourages support and respect for those struggling with mental illness." With this being Memorial Day weekend and the holiday being observed on Monday, May 26, it is timely for the nation to celebrate the contributions and sacrifices made by the members of the military and our honored veterans. In addition, it is also important not to forget the number of veterans returning from service who have medical and mental health needs that go unaddressed. A study by the Rand Corporation found that at least 20% of the 2.3 million American veterans returning home from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have PTSD and/or depression. About 50% of those individuals do not seek treatment, and the veterans who do receive mental health services, the Rand study learned that the treatment was only "minimally adequate". Some veterans returning back from combat may experience post-traumatic stress disorder by re-experience the trauma through flashbacks; avoid people, places, and things that remind them of the event; have hypersomnia or insomnia; have an exaggerated startle response; are hypervigilant; have survivor guilt blaming themselves for situations outside of their control; feel angry over little to no provocation; and may want to cause harm to themselves.

An article in PennLive two months ago highlighted the struggles a 25 year-old Camp Hill man faced in his struggles with PTSD which ultimately led to him taking his own life. Caitlin Thompson, the deputy director of suicide prevention at Veteran's Affairs said that suicide rates continue to decrease among combat veterans which indicate that treatments work, but the key is getting veterans services as early as possible. Recently, accusations were made public that veterans centers in Phoenix, Arizona had extremely long waits and secret lists to cover up the situation that led to veterans with PTSD and at-risk for suicide did not receive mental health treatment when they needed it the most. In response to the allegations, the federal government is investigating the records of VA medical centers across the nation. The Lebanon VA Medical Center said they should pass the audit with no problems as they met their benchmarks and do not have an electronic waiting list to cover up any wrongdoings. An article published today in The Huffington Post said that the VA guidelines require that veterans assessed with a high-risk for suicide receive immediate treatment and also receive four additional follow-up sessions within a 30 day period. Despite that policy, the inspector general's 2013 report found that out of 215 cases investigated, 65 patients did not receive follow-up appointments showing an inconsistency in services.

One reason that veterans do not get the help they need is because of the continued stigma and bias surrounding mental health disorders. Chambersburg's Walk the Walk is just one community approach to help encourage people to move past the shame they may feel about their symptoms and to accept treatment from a mental health provider. A clinical social worker from Keystone Behavioral Health said that the first step is go to one's primary care physician for an initial evaluation to rule out a medical condition. If the symptoms are related to a mental health issue, a referral will be made to get treatment from a professional to provide the appropriate care. There are also emergency services and crisis intervention when a person's needs are critical. Organizations such as the National Alliance on Mental Illness' (NAMI) Pennsylvania office also provides family support group meetings, consumer specific support groups, Family to Family Education courses for members, and advocates for mental health legislation. Knowing there are wrap-around services for the community where there are gaps in state and federal organizations is a relief to anyone waiting on a list for help. Overall, with this Monday being Memorial Day, it is integral that the public not forget that the veterans who served our country are heroes who must also receive all kinds of help they need both medical and mental health without bias to either one.

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