My journey to accepting mental health care

Photo by 123RF
Photo by 123RF

My journey to accepting mental health care

by Christopher Vidaurre
George W. Bush Institute

“I’m OK,” I’d say when anyone asked me how I was doing. Or “I’m fine.”

Why was anyone even asking? I looked calm, collected, physically fit, and carried on with business as usual. I didn’t talk about my anger, depression, and anxiety. But they were all boiling up inside me, and I felt I could snap at a moment’s notice. Of course, I eventually did, and it would send me down to my darkest days.

Not once did I consider seeking mental health care, and nobody ever suggested treatment. I convinced myself that no one could recognize that I was struggling on a day-to-day basis. Triggers brought back all the traumatic events I experienced in childhood, adolescence, and my time in the military – family violence, loss of loved ones, a suicide bombing, and having to carry fellow Marines who had passed.

I kept these things inside and didn’t seek care, putting my life on a dark path, while watching the people around me happily go about their daily lives as if there were no real issues occurring on the other side of the world. Because mental health within the military and veteran community continues to carry a huge stigma. But it’s an issue that needs to be normalized – just like seeking care for physical health.

Because I couldn’t recognize the signs that would have been identified if I’d been receiving care, I had mood swings and prolonged bouts of anger that would cause me to shut down from my loved ones. I dealt with these issues as I knew how, but it wasn’t soon enough to keep me from becoming homeless on the streets of San Antonio after I left the Marine Corps. I ignored all the signs and symptoms, wrecking all my relationships and leaving me completely isolated. I was unable to speak about what I felt or what I was going through until it was too late.

It didn’t have to be this way.

The veteran community has begun to recognize that mental health is a topic that needs to be discussed and is a major component to the overall quality of life. There’s an acknowledgment that we must tackle the idea that seeking mental health care or asking for help makes you look weak or as if you can’t handle your issues. I know firsthand how that stigma can manifest: I wasn’t comfortable and didn’t feel I was able to communicate about the issues I was dealing with.

I’ve learned that addressing your mental health is just as important as focusing on your physical health. The two shouldn’t be treated differently in terms of importance. I can now self-reflect and identify what is triggering my emotions and handle them in a healthy way. I now communicate about my feelings in both an individual and in group settings and look for other outlets that help me relieve any stress I may be feeling.

We should treat a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress-related depression or anxiety the way we would treat diabetes – by giving the person the tools to learn how to manage their medical condition on a day-to-day basis.

It starts by openly talking about depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and PTS without judgment or shame. Having service members and veterans educate themselves and others on how to identify the signs and symptoms, learn how to have these difficult conversations, and recognize when someone requires care or emotional support.

I’m encouraged by new resources available in the military and veteran community that can help knock down many of the barriers to care. One is Check-In, at veterancheckin.org, which quickly, efficiently, and reliably connects veterans to high-quality, compassionate providers. Powered by the Veteran Wellness Alliance, the resource delivers best-in-class mental and brain health care from organizations that are culturally competent about the military.

Other stepping stones include learning how to have the conversation about seeking mental health care and how family, friends, and peers can best support servicemembers or veterans seeking care. Knowing that I was not alone, and that people close to me had my back was vital to my care.

Today, I know asking for help when I’m not OK is a good thing. I share my testimony to give hope to those who struggle with any type of traumatic experience and to let them know it’s OK to ask for help.

I used to think, as others did, that asking for help was a sign of weakness and doing everything on my own, never knowing how to ask for any kind of help, was normal.

Take it from me, the improvement in quality of life is enormous when you don’t have to struggle alone. I waited too long and didn’t have the support I needed to walk down that dark road. But we can create pivotal changes for others, by letting them know, it’s OK not to be OK.

 

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Christopher Vidaurre is Senior Program Manager of Health and Well-Being for Veterans and Military Families at the George W. Bush Institute.

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