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Mental health: Pushing past the stigma

Graphic of Flying Tigers shield

Flying tigers shield. (U.S. Air Force graphic by 23d Wing Public Affairs)

MOODY AIR FORCE BASE, Ga --

The wellness of service members is a priority across the Department of the Air Force, yet mental health has remained one of the most challenging components.

Each service has struggled with an increasing number of suicides since the mid-2000’s. In 2018, there were 103 suicides among Air Force personnel. Despite efforts to improve the situation, such as the Air-Force-wide stand down, that number increased to 137 in 2019. The root of this issue could be the misconceptions about seeking help and outcomes to careers.

Air Force senior leaders are committed to raising awareness for the mental health resources available to Airmen and combating the stigma that still deters people from asking for help in the military.

“I think (the stigma) comes from years of misunderstanding about what mental health assistance is really for, and the larger misconception that mental health is somehow less important than physical health,” said Capt. Kelly Wails, 23d Medical Group mental health provider and Family Advocacy officer in charge. “Mental health is a part of your overall health. Just like you would go see your Primary Care Manager for a broken bone, we are here for the part of you that you may not physically see, but somehow feels broken.”

According to Lt. Col. Steven Cuneio, 23d Wing chaplain, it is vital that Airmen not only understand their options for seeking help but also understand when they need it.

“When we’re struggling with mental health, it affects our social well-being, our emotional well-being — it affects everything,” Cuneio said. “Mental health is similar to physical health. It’s important when people feel unhealthy mentally, they seek the needed help to get back to a sense of normalcy and wellness.”

Airmen may hesitate when thinking about seeking help due to their fear of losing privacy, potential impact on their career, or being perceived a certain way by their peers. However, these concerns can often be alleviated by talking with mental health professionals.

“In the majority of cases, seeking Mental Health will not negatively impact your career,” said Maj. Katrina D. Brown, clinical psychologist and mental health flight commander. “We encourage Airmen to seek help early, as symptoms can worsen over time and lead to negative impacts. The goal is to help Airmen become better mentally.”

The Chaplain Corps has long been an accessible resource for those in need, but often underutilized.

“I like to encourage people to start with the chaplains,” Cuneio said. “The benefit of talking with chaplains is, what is said in the chaplain’s office stays in the chaplain’s office. You've got one hundred percent confidentiality. We can also assess and refer people to more specialized help if it’s needed.”

According to mental health professionals, seeking specialized help shouldn’t be seen as the end of one’s career, but as an avenue to continue a healthy one.

“We have made important strides both in the Air Force and in our country as a whole in improving this misconception, but we still have a long way to go,” Wails said. “If you are concerned that going to seek help from mental health will negatively impact your career or the mission, think about how much more impacted those things might be if you don't. Behind this uniform, there is a human being, and we all take the uniform off one day. Take care of yourself now.”

There are always many options available for those that need or want help.

“We are very fortunate in the military to have so many resources, and so much access to every level of care that is harder to come by in the civilian world. Most people can get the help they need by speaking with the (Military Family Life Consultant) or Military One Source,” Wails said. “Another resource is the National Crisis Support Line, which provides 24 hr, 7 day a week services for individuals who are experiencing suicidal thoughts. They can be reached at 1-800-273-TALK. If Airmen are uncertain about which direction to seek assistance, we encourage them to contact our Mental Health Clinic. We are always here to help.”

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