This Holiday Season, You Have a Chance to Be a True Hero

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mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic
Yeoman 2nd Class Jancarlo San Martin, assigned to Naval Station (NAVSTA) Rota, Spain, poses for a photo to highlight mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic, Sept. 18, 2020. (Benjamin A. Lewis/U.S. Navy illustration)

Kyle White is a former Army sergeant and the 7th living recipient of the Medal of Honor from Operation Enduring Freedom. Follow him on Twitter @officialkwhite or on Instagram @Kylejwhiteofficial.

Like many people, there have been times in my life where I have needed a push in the right direction. Whether it is with my business, my family or life in general, someone has been there to support and encourage me.

There was a specific point in 2009 when I needed a push to get help for what others saw and I was blind to: my mental health. It was those I was closest to who finally made me see that it was time to make a change. I am glad I listened and took action, for I know one thing for certain: I would not have the life I do today without having done so. My amazing wife and my wonderful family would not be a part of my reality, and that is a painful scenario to contemplate.

Many veterans have no close circle of trusted friends or a figure in their lives who can look out for them and guide them when they need a push in the right direction. We must look out for those who need it: We must look after each other.

This past year has forced significant changes to our way of life, with plans canceled, dreams shattered and lives fundamentally changed due to the physical, emotional and economic toll that COVID-19 has brought -- not to mention the loss of more than 300,000 U.S. lives.

The amount of stress and hardship that has been experienced by so many will undoubtedly have an impact on mental health, at both the individual and societal levels. In many ways, I feel that mental health care has never been more relevant and necessary than it is today.

Recently, I have seen more public service announcements encouraging people to seek treatment and aiding in normalizing the conversation. I see others, like myself, sharing stories and spreading real awareness of something that is otherwise invisible to the eye. The need to encourage others to be open, vulnerable and honest has never been more important than it is right now.

Mental health, specifically post-traumatic stress, or PTS, has largely been painted as a veteran issue. The narrative and depiction of the American veteran is one that was dominated by PTS. This simply is not the case, nor was it ever. Furthermore, PTS, and mental health in general, is nondiscriminatory and one of the few issues that is truly nonpartisan. It does not care about your political affiliation, gender, education level or how much money you make. It doesn't care what religion you call your own or the color of your skin.

PTS in particular can strike at any time, for any reason, including car accidents, sexual and physical abuse/trauma, isolation and high-stress work. Different scenarios affect people differently, and no one is exempt.

2020 has taught us that mental health care is a real issue. New and evolving challenges that we face as a country have left us all stressed at some point. It is a subject that needs to be covered at the dinner table on a Tuesday night. It is a subject that needs to have readily available resources in the workplace. It needs to be normalized and talked about in all walks of life.

I will address three groups of people: First, those who are not suffering from any mental health issues; second, those who have suffered and are seeking help; and third, those who are currently suffering and not seeking help.

For the second group, I state "seeking help," because it is important to note that a lot of mental health care is ongoing. For some of us, it is a constant lifelong war. Others may have a temporary battle. Everyone's experience is different but necessary; therefore, for simplicity's sake, I will categorize the second group as "seeking."

Those who do not suffer from any mental health issues represent what others want to see and feel within themselves. You are the benchmark; however, there is a responsibility that comes with that. Be of service to your community and fellow citizens. Volunteer your time or lend an ear or helping hand. Be an inspiration to others and a beacon of hope, and remember that just because mental health issues aren't affecting you directly does not mean that they are not affecting you indirectly through your friends or family.

If you are one of those currently seeking treatment for their mental health, I can say with near certainty that someone somewhere is living through that dark time that you experienced before you made the choice to get help. Someone is hearing that voice of doubt in their mind. That little deafening whisper that tells you, "What will others think of me? What will happen if someone finds out I am not OK? Will they think less of me?"

You might have weighed your happiness, your ability to enjoy life and to feel again against what other people may think of you. You then made a choice for change. You made a choice to put yourself and your mental health first. If that sounds like you and your story at one point, then you have a new mission. You are now leaders. You are the ones who hold the keys that will open the door for others to follow your path. You are in front of the pack, and your story is an inspiration. Sharing that story is saying to others, "Follow me. This works. You matter." It is time to stand up for your family, friends, coworkers and neighbors who are on the sidelines, waiting for some sort of push to make the same change you did.

For the third group of people who need help but haven't begun seeking it quite yet: It is time. It is time for us all to quit looking at invisible wounds as anything but what they are: wounds. How do we do that and change the opinions and biases of so many? In order to do so, take a step back for a moment and think of a time in your life when you were injured. Did you injure yourself in the kitchen preparing a meal? Fall off your bike while distracted?

What do we do when our child falls and needs stitches? We go to a doctor and get it taken care of. We have a distinct urge to get medical assistance in order to physically heal and get back to living our lives. We get hurt, we get help, we get better. Take that process you are talking over in your head and realize that there is no difference in doing the same thing for injuries you cannot see but can feel. Seems simple, doesn't it? Then why is it not the case? It is time for a change.

Now is the time. Now, you must act. We must all act.

It is time to share and inspire change. It is time for us to work together toward forever altering the perception of mental health care in America. I am calling on each and every person reading this to accept a personal challenge. I challenge you to take action if the words you have read call on you to do so.

We are coming up on a time when we normally gather and spend time with the ones we love. We eat too much and sometimes have a bit too much of the adult eggnog. This year is going to look different. There will inevitably be those who will face this time alone. There will be those who spend this holiday season in a lockdown. There will be those who realize they need someone, anyone, to talk to in order to get through this time. It's going to be a time that requires us to look out for one another and be leaders.

This is the time to reach out to your loved ones and to your friends. Reach out to anyone in your life that you care about and you know is having a tough day, or year, or is just plain down on their luck. If you have someone in your life you are normally concerned for, now is the time to ask if they are OK. If you have ever received help for your mental health, please share that experience. Share it on social media. Share it in your Zoom sessions. Share it however you want. Tell us how it felt when you began to feel like you again. Share the fact that it is worth it. Share it with people you know and people you don't know. Follow up with people and ask whether they have questions or if they just want to talk.

You could be the person who saves a life this holiday season. You could be the hero who makes a difference in someone's life. If we can save just one person, is that not worth it?

I was once someone who needed you. I still need you to act for those who are living in the shoes that I once wore. We cannot effect the change that needs to happen unless we all work together in order to change the perceptions that exist in our society today about mental health.

The decision I made to get help had a drastic impact on my life and will be a constant presence for years to come. I remember those who pushed me to get help. I will never forget their words and their love, which drove me to make a change. There are many definitions of a hero in today's world, and I think it goes without saying that we all have our own heroes in our lives. I know who mine are. We all need them; we can all be them to someone we know.

There needs to be a change, and the time is now. Are you going to be a part of it? Are you going to be someone's hero?

-- The opinions expressed in this op-ed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Military.com. If you would like to submit your own commentary, please send your article to opinions@military.com for consideration.

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