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Seeking Mental Health Care is Encouraged, Army Psychiatrist Says

By Navy Lt. Jennifer Cragg
Special to American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, May 23, 2008 – Reducing the stigma related to servicemembers seeking mental health assistance is a total team effort that involves educating peers to look out for each other and encouraging those who might be reluctant to receive care, a senior military medical official said yesterday.

“Commanders and noncommissioned officers really play a critical role in eliminating stigma, especially the junior-level noncommissioned officers who are with the troops on a day-to-basis. They play a key role in this goal of decreasing stigma,” Col. (Dr.) C.J. Diebold, chief of the psychiatry department at Tripler Army Medical Center in Hawaii, said in an interview on the “Dot Mil Docs” program on BlogTalkRadio.com.

He added that improving one’s overall behavioral health by eating sensibly, getting exercise, and practicing good hygiene are key factors when facing stressful situations. “Behavioral health is important to everyone, as it directly affects how a person feels and acts,” Diebold said.

He added that keeping up overall mental health is especially crucial when deployed to a combat zone.

“When one is deployed in a place like a combat zone, one must really maintain a really healthy lifestyle and a positive attitude to be able maintain good behavioral health,” Diebold said.

Encouraging servicemembers to learn more about maintaining overall mental health for not only themselves, but also for their families, is just one of the elements highlighted in May, which is Mental Health Month.

“It jogs people’s consciousness to recognize the importance of mental health, and hopefully that will continue throughout the entire year,” Diebold said.

Many lessons have been learned by looking at mental health issues year-round, he added.

“One of the lessons learned over the past few decades is the importance of a servicemember’s psychological well-being in terms of being able to perform their mission, but also the psychological well-being of their families,” Diebold said. He added that servicemembers who may need assistance either during or after their deployment have a lot of different options to choose from.

“A servicemember could go to their unit chaplain, and I have talked with servicemembers over the years, and this is really the first place that a lot of people will go to,” he said. “The chaplains are a very good way to go and be able to talk through some of the issues that are going on.”

Diebold said still other outlets include talking with primary care providers, behavioral health professionals, psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers, family therapists, and alcohol- and substance-abuse counselors.

“The important thing to remember is that if a person is concerned that they may have experienced a traumatic event in theater and some other environment, and it is really affecting them, to go in and talk to a counselor [or] their primary care manager and get evaluated and get treated if it is indicated,” Diebold said. “The sooner it’s recognized and the sooner it is evaluated and treatment, the better a person is going to feel, and [it decreases] the chance that they may have long-term effects.”

Servicemembers may encounter post-traumatic stress disorder or combat and operational stress during or after deployments, Diebold said.

“I think that it is now the longest continuous combat operations of any war besides the Revolutionary War, and we have had servicemembers deploying multiple times now,” he said. “The stress that servicemembers and the families [are experiencing] have been well recognized, and that is why these special programs and bolstering of helping services have been implemented to help out.”

Some of the symptoms associated with PTSD are nightmares, nervousness, anxiety or flashbacks. In contrast to PTSD, combat and operational stress reactions are short reactions to stress from being in the combat zone. Usually, combat and operational stress symptoms will resolve with rest, short-term counseling or sometimes simply on their own, he explained, whereas symptoms of PTSD can last a few days, months or even years.

Diebold added that the Department of Veterans Affairs has been working to find treatments for PTSD. Usually, with treatment, a servicemember affected by PTSD can return to active duty. Mental health professionals are deployed in theater to aid servicemembers who may be dealing with PTSD or know someone who is, he noted.

“Our mental health professionals are out there among the troops, educating the troops that this is an expected reaction and here are some of the things that you can do to help decrease some of your stress.

“Commanders and soldiers are being educated and being encouraged to go in and seek mental health treatment,” he continued, “and leaders are encouraged to allow their soldiers time away from work … to get evaluated and treated.”

(Navy Lt. Jennifer Cragg works in the New Media branch of the Defense Media Activity.)

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