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Pentagon moves to reduce stigma of mental counseling

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PAULINE JELINEK
May 1, 2008
— Advocates of better mental health care for troops say a new Pentagon policy aimed at reducing the stigma of getting psychiatric counseling could be a small but important step.

Under the new policy, troops won’t have to reveal past job-related therapy when they apply for security clearances. The change was prompted partly by the finding that many don’t get treatment because they fear acknowledging a mental problem could cost them their security clearance, harm their careers and embarrass them before commanders and comrades.


Defense Secretary Robert Gates planned to announce the policy Thursday at Fort Bliss, Texas, where he was visiting a center for troops recovering from post-traumatic stress disorder, several officials said. They spoke on condition of anonymity ahead of the announcement.


“I think it will help,” said Paul Riechoff, executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. “This needs to be followed by a mental health campaign — not just for service members but for their families as well. But I really do think it’s a significant evolution.


A survey released Wednesday by the American Psychiatric Association found that about three in five service members think seeking help for mental health concerns would have at least some impact on their careers.


“The military has made strides in raising awareness of mental health, but it’s going to take a tremendous commitment to overcome attitudes that are ingrained in the military culture,” association president Dr. Carolyn B. Robinowitz said.


The new policy relates to a question on the application required by the Office of Personnel Management, the agency that does the majority of investigations for security clearances for military and civilian federal workers.


Currently, Question 21 asks applicants whether they have consulted a mental health professional in the past seven years. If so, they are asked to list the names, addresses and dates they saw the doctor or therapist, unless it was for marriage or grief counseling and not related to violent behavior.


The amended question Gates has approved is less stringent. It essentially means troops would not have to worry about therapy they got for difficulties caused by their wartime tours of duty or other missions, said four officials familiar with the revision.


“No service member should fail to seek professional care because he doesn’t want to answer a security clearance question,” said Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. “This small step may pay big dividends by encouraging our forces to get the help they need.”


The Pentagon says the perception of stigma for security applicants is far worse than the reality.


The most recently released data show less than 1 percent of some 800,000 people investigated for clearances in 2006 were rejected on the sole issue of their mental health profiles.


Up to 20 percent of the more than 1.6 million troops who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan are estimated to have mental health problems, the Defense Department says.


Successive government and private studies have found roughly half of those who need help are seeking it.


Revising the security clearance procedure is the latest in a string of efforts aimed at changing military attitudes on mental health:


— The Army last year held special sessions to teach 800,000 troops how to recognize concussions and mental problems in themselves and their buddies.


— The Army and Navy have put mental health professionals into primary care centers — rather than setting them off in separate locations — so troops can go for appointments discreetly.



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