May marks both Mental Health Awareness Month and Military Appreciation Month. In Pennsylvania, officials want to ensure that veterans know mental-health and substance-use resources are available.

Pennsylvania is home to nearly 800,000 military veterans, the fourth-largest veteran population in the country.

Rick Hamp, special assistant to the deputy adjutant general for veteran affairs at the state Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, leads military suicide-prevention efforts in the state. He said veterans sometimes can face stigma if they speak openly about struggles with anxiety or depression. Knowing a loved one supports them can help, Hamp said.

“Always be there for your family members and for those around you,” he said. “You know what’s normal for a person, and if they don’t look normal, don’t be afraid to ask the question, ‘Are you OK?’ That is the start of helping a person. And be ready when they reply, ‘No, I’m not.'”

The state recently launched PA VETConnect, a community-based outreach program for veterans to find behavioral and mental-health services and employment opportunities. Veterans in crisis or those who know one can call the Veterans Crisis Line at 800-273-8255 and press 1. 

Dr. Rhonda Randall, executive vice president and chief medical officer at United Healthcare, agreed it’s important to look out for signs of mental-health challenges in loved ones. That may mean an uncharacteristic disinterest in activities they usually enjoy, a change in sleep patterns or mentioning feelings of hopelessness. She added that it’s important for people to seek help from a trusted health professional.

“Mental health is part of our health,” she said. “It’s a conversation you should be having with your primary-care physician when you go get your annual checkups, especially if you already have an established relationship. And it can be a really good place to start, and also take into context your other medical conditions.”

According to the 2022 America’s Health Rankings Senior Report from United Health Foundation, drug-related deaths increased by 149% for older adults in Pennsylvania over a 10-year period. Seventy-six percent of Pennsylvania’s veterans are age 55 or older.

p.s. Chester is one of the few locations in Delaware County that doesn’t display Hometown Hero banners dedicated to veterans. In my role on Chester City Council, I will change that omission starting in 2022.