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How COVID-19 is affecting veterans' mental health

This pandemic has been tough for all of us, but many veterans are struggling to feel connected and cope with isolation.

TAMPA, Fla — We're coming up on a year of social distancing, self-isolation, virtual holidays and birthdays all on top of the stress of the pandemic. 

It's been really hard for a lot of us. It's been especially hard for people who have struggled with mental health pre-pandemic and for people who have experienced some tough things.

According to briefings from the U.S. Defense Department, military suicides have increased by 20 percent over the past year. Leaders from the Army and Air Force have said the pandemic is likely a contributing factor.

It's added stress for active-duty military and veterans. Garrett Cathcart, now executive director of a veteran's advocacy group called Mission Roll Call, shared what he's heard from veterans he knows.

"The pandemic has made it worse because of the isolation, right? So, you don't interact with people and you don't check on your friends and have those touchpoints and it makes the problems you have a little bit worse," said Cathcart.

Cathcart also recognizes the struggle healthcare providers are facing battling the coronavirus pandemic.

"I think there's a lot of frustration of veterans not being able to seek care, the kinds of care they're seeing and then not being able to get in." He said he's seen lots of people struggle to get prompt access to mental health care.

His best piece of advice is to just reach out, call a friend or family member just to check-in, for either their benefit or for yours. 

"I think you've got to check in with yourself too and recognize, 'Hey, I'm not okay' and that's fine. It's tough for a lot of people and it's nothing to be ashamed about," Cathcart said.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs offers these tips for managing stress during the pandemic:

  • Exercise regularly, try to eat well-balanced meals and get plenty of sleep.
  • Limit alcohol
  • Practice breathing exercises and/or meditation. The VA has many free mental health apps for veterans like Mood Coach, COVID Coach, and Mindfulness Coach
  • Take breaks from the news
  • Stay connected with others while practicing physical distancing
  • Participate in activities or hobbies that you enjoy, or learn a new one
  • Keep your current mental health appointments. The VA offers both video and phone telemental health options that do not require you to go to your closest facility in-person should you have a medical concern or need to follow specific physical distancing guidelines in your community
  • Learn ways to connect with VA providers using telehealth options and schedule or reschedule your appointment online. If you are requesting a new mental health appointment, please call your local VA and they will work to arrange an appointment for you. If you need same-day access to mental health services, call your local VA to request this and you will be connected to care

Here's how to get immediate help in a crisis:

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