The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), a grassroots advocacy organization, released a report Thursday calling for the military to make service members with combat-related post-traumatic stress and other psychological injuries eligible to receive the Purple Heart.
The report, Parity for Patriots, argues that mental health disorders are "signature" injuries of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. In 2011, there were more hospitalizations for mental disorders amongst active-duty service members than for any other major illness or injury, affecting one in five individuals.
Sita Diehl, the report's author and director of state policy and advocacy for NAMI, said that in addition to PTSD, the military should also consider combat-related depression for Purple Heart eligibility. Previous research, Diehl said, has shown that after a sixth or seventh deployment, it is standard to experience about six months of combat-related depression.
The Purple Heart is awarded to service members who have been wounded or killed by the enemy in combat. Post-traumatic stress disorders currently do not justify a Purple Heart, according to Army regulations. Other injuries that do not merit the Purple Heart include heat stroke, frostbite, battle fatigue and accidents.
Awarding the Purple Heart for mental illness that results from combat, Diehl said, would "help to recognize these are genuine medical conditions. If you get a psychological wound in battle, that means you are courageous. We want that to be recognized."
NAMI spokesman Bob Carolla said the organization previously approached military leaders privately about Purple Heart eligibility, but said it never received a response. This is the first time the organization has publicly called for changes to the regulations.
The report also outlines a looming mental health crisis for service members, veterans and their families. Studies have shown that military spouses and children are diagnosed with anxiety, depression and other mental disorders at rates comparable to service members.
In order to address various aspects of the crisis, the report called on the Department of Defense to require commanders to focus on preventing psychological injuries and deaths; said the Veteran Health Administration should ensure that more veterans and their families have access to care; and recommended that the Department of Health and Human Services finalize regulations for a federal parity law that would fully end discriminatory practices in mental health care treatment.
Still, Diehl said, the responsibility to help service members, veterans and their families can't fall only to the government.
"These [agencies] can’t do it alone," she said, "We as the American people need to reach out and care."
Rebecca Ruiz is a reporter at msnbc.com and a 2011-2012 Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Journalism Fellow. Follow her on Twitter here.
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