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Mental Health First Aid for Our Boots-on-the-Ground

I am a veteran. When I returned home to Amarillo, Texas after being deployed to Afghanistan with the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, I was ready for a fresh start. Instead, I struggled with unemployment as symptoms of depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder set in.

Prior to deployment, service men and women are trained in basic first aid so that we are equipped to address the physical wounds of battle. When the shooting stops, different challenges begin for many of us. We live with the emotional wounds of war. Tragically, many of us feel unable to reach out for help when we need it the most.

Due to the nature of our work, veterans are at particularly high risk of developing mental health problems, and some never get the help they need. 22 veterans die by suicide each day.

The sense of strength and resilience that the military instills in those who serve can inhibit us from asking for help. We believe it’s up to us to solve our own problems and that asking for help is a sign of weakness.

Fortunately, through programs like Mental Health First Aid, people can learn how to reach out and start those difficult conversations.

I know firsthand how much it matters. It wasn’t until a close friend of mine stepped in and literally took me by the arm that I got the support I needed to recover. She knew enough to get me to the people who could help. That’s all it took.

In addition to being a veteran, I am also a member of the Military Veteran Peer Network Program with Texas Panhandle Behavioral & Developmental Health. Our community supports veterans and first responders. We work to connect Texas veterans and their families to resources, establishing camaraderie, trust and hope.

In my work, I have had the opportunity to be a Mental Health First Aid for Veterans trainer. I live in the Texas panhandle and many of our communities are rural and secluded. Many people don’t really know much about mental illness, or where to go to access help. But Mental Health First Aid gives us the tools to educate everyday citizens – both veteran and civilian – how to recognize the signs of someone in need.

This is powerful stuff and it is saving lives. Just like CPR is mandatory in many settings, I absolutely believe that Mental Health First Aid should be required for our boots-on-the ground community leaders, like teachers and law enforcement officials, to be able to recognize mental illness and substance use. So many people are out there wishing for something better, hoping that help will show up. That’s what Mental Health First Aid is – it is the help that can get people connected to care and, ultimately, to a better place.

Tousha Paxton-Barnes is a U.S. Army veteran (Army’s 82nd Airborne Division) who experienced depression, anxiety and PTSD after returning from deployment to Afghanistan. She currently serves as the veteran outreach coordinator for the Texas Panhandle Centers in Amarillo and is a certified Mental Health First Aid for Veterans Instructor.

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