WASHINGTON, May 1, 2008 – The nation’s top military officer today called on military leaders across the services to set the example and get mental health care if they need it.

“You can’t expect a private or a specialist to be willing to seek counseling when his or her captain or colonel or general won’t do it,” Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at a Pentagon news conference.

Mullen praised the Defense Department for changing a question on its security form that asks about applicants’ mental health care. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates announced the change this morning. Officials believe the question’s wording was needlessly preventing some people from seeking counseling.

The Standard Form 86, Questionnaire for National Security Positions, asks applicants to acknowledge mental health care in the past seven years. Officials said surveys have shown that troops feel if they answer “yes” to the question, they could jeopardize their security clearances, required for many occupations in the military. Applicants no longer have to acknowledge care for marital or grief counseling or care related to service in a military combat zone.

Mullen called it a “significant change” and a step in the right direction for DoD in reducing the stigma within its ranks associated with receiving mental health services.

“Psychological health and fitness is no different than physical health and fitness. Both are readiness issues. Both are leadership issues,” Mullen said. “Good people, many of who have seen combat up close, … whose courage is absolutely unquestionable, and who deserve only the best physical and mental health care we can provide, are actually willing to deny themselves that care out of the fear that doing so hurts them and their families in the long run. Nothing could be further from the truth.”

The chairman said the long war in Iraq and Afghanistan has taken its toll on the minds of U.S. servicemembers, as well as on their bodies.

“Reaching out for help is, in fact, one of the most courageous acts and one of the first big steps to reclaiming your career, your life, and your future,” he said.

Also on hand at the news conference was Army Dr. (Col.) Loree Sutton, chief of the newly formed Defense Center of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury.

“Seeking help is a sign of strength,” the Army psychiatrist said. Early intervention is the key to successful care, she noted, and leaders are looking at ways to change the stigma attached to getting mental health care in hopes that troops will come sooner than later.

“Stigma is really just a toxic, occupational, work-related hazard. For any other such hazard, we would take immediate action. That’s what we’re doing,” she said.

Plans are in the works for senior military officers to be part of a national awareness campaign aimed at reducing the stigma. In the campaign, officers will come forward as having received care in an effort to demonstrate a “top-down” approach to mental health care.

“We can change the policy. We can talk about how important it is. But ultimately, troops and families want to see leaders walking that walk,” Sutton said.

She said DoD officials hope this change will remove some of the fear that has blocked servicemembers from getting care they know they need, but are afraid to get.

Army Col. Patricia Horoho, commander of the Walter Reed Health Care System, compared psychological fitness to physical fitness.

“Our goal is to build resilient forces and families, both physically and mentally,” Horoho said. “Just as we encourage our servicemembers to work out and maintain physical fitness, so too we must encourage them to go to the psychological ‘gym’ to maintain their psychological health.”

DoD security officials said no one has been denied a security clearance based solely on the fact they received mental health counseling, but the perception that receiving care would jeopardize a security clearance, combined with the stigma of having to acknowledge the care on the form, may have been preventing some from receiving needed care.

About 1 million security forms are submitted annually within the Defense Department. Of those, less than 1 percent receive unfavorable determinations based solely on mental health issues, officials said. Of those denied, factors besides simply receiving counseling are considered.

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