Prioritizing mental health for military service members and their families
Key takeaways from Leidos’ Mission for the Mind mental health awareness panel
As someone who has been a military spouse for 28 years and now has the privilege of serving as President of Leidos Health Group, I took the time last month, during Mental Health Awareness Month, to reflect on the availability of mental healthcare resources for our dedicated service members and their families. I also had the wonderful opportunity to take part in a panel discussion for Leidos’ Mission for the Mind 2023 Speaker and Leadership Series. It was a thought-provoking experience that prompted me to consider three areas that inspire hope, as well as three areas where we need to further prioritize mental healthcare resources for our military community.
Signs of progress: society, policy, and programs
Societally, the pandemic increased discourse and understanding about mental health challenges and resources. While we are all navigating new mental wellness challenges, both civilians and military service members alike are more openly discussing their emotional well-being and seeking support when needed. The pandemic also forced us to use telehealth, giving more communities access to mental health care. As the pandemic subsides, mental health and technological advancement that facilitates greater access must remain a priority.
On a policy level, decision-makers have taken serious steps to guarantee that service members are able to access critical mental health resources. I applaud Gilbert Ciseros Jr., Undersecretary of Defense and Personnel Readiness, for signing a policy this month to begin implementing the Brandon Act. This measure aims to improve the referral process for service members seeking a mental health evaluation, allowing them to seek help confidentially. Policies like these are critical to reducing stigmas and ensuring resources are available to service members when needed.
Programmatically, I am so proud of Leidos’ work with the Department of Defense on the Military & Family Life Counseling Program (MFLC). Through MFLC, we provide non-medical counseling to service members and their families to help them navigate the complex matters of military life. Our commitment to this program is underpinned by our belief that we must ensure that those who choose to serve our country are best served by us. On our panel, Besa Pinchotti, CEO of the National Military Family Association, highlighted the valuable role MFLC counselors play at their Operation Purple Camps and Retreats, helping military families who might benefit from extra support.
We’ve taken clear steps forward when it comes to reducing stigma and increasing resources around mental health, but unique barriers remain, including access, anonymity, cost, availability of providers, and swift rollout of policy changes.
Areas for change: expedience of policy reform, privacy, and availability
In terms of expediency, we need policy and tenor changes enacted more quickly at the grassroots level. Steve Schwab, CEO of the Elizabeth Dole Foundation, knows how critical this is. Steve told a story during our panel about a young man from a military family who had hoped to join the U.S. Marine Corps but was told he could not be considered because he had seen a therapist as a child. Rhetoric from leaders suggests this should no longer be the case, yet this young man’s story suggests that policy and tenor change is not trickling down quickly enough.
Concerning privacy, we must ensure that the universal digitalization and the permanence of our health records do not perpetuate mental health stigmas of the past. I am proud of the work Leidos, and its teammates did to develop and implement the MHS GENESIS system, which provides a single digital medical record for service members and their families and is helping to modernize the military health system further. However, as we saw in Steve’s story, we can see how the universal permanence of these records may cause people to avoid care or seek care outside the military ecosystem. We cannot afford to stay in a pre-digital age, but we must make sure people can seek care without fear of consequences when it comes to mental health.
Last, regarding availability, there is a growing demand for mental health resources. We need more counselors co-located on bases and in schools, and we must think of innovative ways to reach more people with the resources we have today. We do not want our service members and their families to feel they must look outside of the military ecosystem to find care that may be unaffordable. Leidos is committed to thinking through and implementing solutions to ensure our active-duty service members and their families can easily access the care they need.
I am inspired by the progress we continue to make on mental health and confronting barriers to access for our active-duty service members and their families, but we must continue to do more. This month has reinvigorated my motivation to collaborate with industry partners, mental health advocates, customers, Congress, and members of the Leidos community to ensure we continue to drive real progress.