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DoD Pursues Mental Health Initiatives

By Douglas J. Gillert
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, July 15, 1999 – On the heels of the first White House Conference on Mental Health, DoD has launched two new initiatives aimed at reducing stress and suicide among service members and their families.

President Clinton announced the new DoD programs June 7. The first is designed to help service members and their families learn to manage stress associated with frequent deployments, family separations and other life issues. The second initiative tackles the issues of suicide.

A new DoD directive requires that all service members and health care providers receive training in combat stress control and assigns a mental health consultant to each unified command surgeon. A reinvigorated suicide prevention program will identify and implement the best practices from among the service departments, integrate the delivery of mental health services between agencies and develop a robust data base to guide program planning and implementation.

Both initiatives call for greater support from line commanders.

The two initiatives require similar resources, said Dr. Sue Bailey, assistant secretary of defense for health affairs. She said DoD's goal is to strengthen and unify programs the services already have. Moreover, she added, DoD wants to remove the stigma often associated with mental health difficulties.

"It's an issue for society as a whole. There has been stigma associated with any mental illness or emotional disturbance. Particularly, we're looking at cultural change in the military," Bailey said. Commanders must be involved so troubled people know they can step forward and seek help without threatening their careers, she said.

Increasing peoples' ability to cope with stress requires an openness that could conflict with an individual's need for privacy, Bailey admitted. But it's important commanders and supervisors know if somebody under their command is suffering emotional problems, particularly if that person's job involves individual, organizational or national security, she said.

The services' have programs to help members recover. While in them, service members may need a job change or duty restrictions, but with successful treatment they can usually return to their old jobs, Bailey said.

There is no return from suicide, however. Bailey said she's encouraged by an Air Force prevention plan that has reduced suicides by four-fifths.

"The average suicide rate for the military is 12 per 100,000 people," she said. "In the Air Force program, we found that in the first six months of 1999, the rates came down from about 15 per 100,000 to 3 per 100,000. So we're seeing what we think are real positive results from the program they've initiated."

The Air Force suicide prevention program focuses greatly on community involvement, Bailey said. Mental health professionals counsel and support troubled people, but so does the entire community, including churches, schools, family services and others, by forming a circle of help to rescue somebody from the turmoil of emotional and mental despair, she said.

DoD's program will build on the Air Force's and blend in the best practices of the other services' programs, Bailey said. "We will work together to share our resources, experience and data," she said. Some aspects of the program will be uniform across DoD, while others will be tailored to meet the needs of the specific services or other groups, such as members of different services who deploy together. The program will be fully implemented by the end of 1999, Bailey said.

"National security depends on a military force that is healthy and fit, both physically and mentally," Bailey said. She said she's encouraged by a 1998 health behaviors survey that reveals more service members are finding positive ways to deal with stress.

"The survey indicates that service members are experiencing a greater level of access to programs within the community and through our medical system," she said. "They are also seeking out things such as exercise as a means of coping with stress.

"There's an interesting phenomenon taking place in the military today," Bailey said. "It used to be on a Friday night that people went for happy hour and you couldn't get a parking place at the club. Now, you can't find parking at the gym, because they're looking for happier lives and they're looking the right way."

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