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Women’s health emerging priorities series highlights mental health

A woman holding her hands near her face Mental health issues among military women can affect how they transition in many ways, be it housing changes, deployment or leaving the military and getting acclimated to civilian life. Women veterans are more than two times as likely to commit suicide as the general population. (Photo courtesy of National Institute of Mental Health, National Institutes of Health, Department of Health and Human Services)

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Transitioning from being an active service member to veteran or beneficiary can affect the mental health of women in ways that differ from men.

The effects of these transitions are an emerging priority at the Defense Health Agency, attendees heard at a Feb. 25 virtual clinical communities’ speakers’ series event sponsored by the DHA Training and Education Directorate’s Continuing Education Program Office (CEPO) in partnership with the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The Emerging Priorities in Women's Health day-long event included a discussion of women’s mental health issues, including reproductive cycles mental health; intimate partner violence; cardiovascular disease; human papillomavirus and opportunities to eradicate cervical dysplasia and cervical cancer; COVID-19 in pregnancy and its effects on maternal-fetal health; ethical considerations in women's health care during the pandemic; and updates on select DHA Women & Infants Clinical Communities initiatives.

The mental health portion of the program included information on resources for female service members transitioning from active duty; sexual assault/harassment; and suicide prevention.

"Women veterans are more than two times more likely to die by suicide as the general population," VA clinical psychologist Jennifer Strauss told event attendees.

"In FY 2019, 43% of women Veterans Health Agency users had diagnosed mental health issues," she said. That compares to "26% of male VHA users who had a confirmed mental health diagnosis," she added, underscoring the need for DOD and VA prioritization of women's mental health needs.

She noted that women often have "more complexity of care" than men, such as higher rates of depression and anxiety, and higher rates of mental health and medical comorbidities.

One of the concerns of health care providers and patients is a "lapse in health care during and after transitioning," said Holly O'Reilly, a clinical psychologist at DHA's Psychological Health Center of Excellence (PHCoE). "Those with a strategic plan in place or a strong support network fare better than those without” when it comes to transitions."

The PHCoE offers an "excellent referral hotline 24/7," and there are numerous clinical support tools to aid in transitions, she said. Patients and providers can access these tools at https://pdhealth.mil.

The event highlighted current evidence-based practices, policies, recommendations, and initiatives. The primary focus aimed to enhance the quality of patient outcomes and population health by providing advanced continuing education (CE) opportunities for health care providers across the Military Health System. Recordings and CE credits from Feb. 25's event will be available from April 12 for six months for home study at the J-7 CEPO website.

There are other series this year: Youth in Transition on April 22; Exploring Evidence-Based Practices in Modern Medicine Primary Care on June 24; Exploration of Innovations in Health Care Aug. 26; and Promising Practices in Military Health Care on Oct. 28. Information about the programs and speakers is also available at the CEPO website.

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