September 17, 2019

Supporting the mental health of military personnel, families and veterans in times of war

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — Warriors hate war perhaps more than anybody else. They have to see it up close and very personal.

And what they see can affect their mental health, ranging from depression and anxiety to PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder, to suicidal thoughts and the potential to committing suicide.

Shelley MacDermid Wadsworth is a professor of human development and family studies and director of the Military Family Research Institute at Purdue (MFRI). As a social scientist, she studies risk and resilience in military families, and she was concerned about suicides among military personnel and access to mental health providers for them and their families even before serving on the Department of Defense’s Mental Health Task Force in 2007.

Suicide is an alarming issue for the military. In 2018, the Department of Defense’s Quarterly Suicide Report showed that 325 active duty, 135 National Guard and 81 Reserve personnel died by  suicide. Among veterans no longer active, a 2016 report from the Department of Veterans Affairs showed 6,079 veterans died by suicide – in that year alone.

 “We pay attention to depression, anxiety, PTSD and substance abuse. All of those things can be on the path that people travel to suicidal thoughts or actions,” MacDermid Wadsworth said. “Our intent is to be far upstream and understand ways to intervene much earlier and help people have the tools they need to recognize early warning signs so that they never get on a path toward suicide.

Wadsworth profile Shelley MacDermid Wadsworth, a professor of human development and family studies and director of the Military Family Research Institute at Purdue University. (Purdue University photo) Download image

“We shouldn’t be treating mental and physical health as two completely separate things. The way we tend to respond to psychological health issues is quite different from our responses to physical health issues. As a society, we don’t train proactively about mental health issues. We don’t teach early prevention strategies. There seems a lot of discomfort and stigma around people who disclose they have psychological health issues.”

One of the outreach programs offered by MFRI is Star Behavioral Health Providers. Star Behavioral Health offers advanced training for behavioral health providers who are then added to a registry to work with military personnel and their families.

Star Behavioral Health has been launched in Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, New York, South Carolina, Georgia, Utah, Oregon and California. There are currently 1,200 providers on its online roster.

MacDermid Wadsworth reviews feedback they receive following the training.

“I have seen people say they previously felt that because they hadn’t served, they could not help military members or veterans,” she said. “This training has helped providers become more comfortable in understanding service members’ experiences and connecting with them.”

Currently, Star Behavioral Health is working with Indiana’s Family and Social Services Administration’s Division of Mental Health and Addiction to provide training for community mental health agencies across the state.

 “Prolonged family separations – especially in times of war – are stressful. Wartime deployments are very uncertain and unpredictable. Families, children and service members all worry a lot. People are exposed to traumatic events. They see and do things we hope no one ever has to see or do. For some people, that can have consequences. Again, those consequences may not be prolonged. They can resolve with treatment.”

“The top three reasons that families call the Department of Defense’s employee assistance program are issues with their spouse or partner, kids and stress. Most cases don’t need prolonged clinical assistance; they need coaching and reassurance, and people are good to go,” MacDermid Wadsworth said.

Star Behavioral Health’s monthly survey of its patients shows about 35.8% are veterans, 32.5% are family members and 31.7% are military personnel. The top five issues for military personnel and veterans are marital/relationship issues, depression, anxiety, PTSD and sleep. For family members, marital/relationship issues, depression and anxiety are the top three.

“We do know that psychological health problems are factors that increase the risk for negative family outcomes,” MacDermid Wadsworth said. “Most families display resilience. Others need help to get on the path to where they want to be.”

A family’s ability to respond depends on the level of support from others and access to resources to recover. Resilience is made easier, for example, when the military has effective resources in place to assist with housing, food and finances.

“MFRI is always looking for ways to try to help the systems around families work better for them,” MacDermid Wadsworth said. “The burden should not always be on distressed families to figure out how to make systems work for them.”

MFRI will host “What IF We Ended Military and Veterans Suicide?” as part of its annual Battlemind to Home Summit from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Oct. 8 in the Purdue Memorial Union’s ballrooms. The event is part of Purdue University’s Ideas Festival, the centerpiece of Purdue’s Giant Leaps Sesquicentennial Campaign. The Ideas Festival will feature a series of events that connect world-renowned speakers and Purdue expertise in a conversation on the most critical problems facing the world. Health, longevity and the quality of life is one of those themes. 

Writer: Matthew Oates, 765-496-2571,, @mo_oates

Source: Shelley MacDermid Wadsworth, 765-494-6026,, @MFRIPurdue

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