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Navy Program Reduces Sailors’ Stress

By Ian Graham
Special to American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Dec. 11, 2009 – People complain about stress daily, and treatment for stress has become a large industry within the mental health field. But few know stress as well as servicemembers, who routinely face long work days, intense physical activity and high operational tempo – not to mention the risks of being deployed to a war zone.

Capt. Lori A. Laraway, coordinator of the Navy’s Operational Stress Control Program, spoke during a “DoDLive” bloggers roundtable yesterday about the mental-health issues sailors face and how the Navy works to prevent and remedy them.

Laraway’s program, which began in November 2008, seeks to create an environment where sailors, commands and families can thrive in the midst of stressful operations. Just as athletes gain the winning edge by using every means at their disposal - coaches, trainers and even sports psychologists - sailors need to employ all means available to stay fit and ready as well as seek assistance for stress reactions early before they become stress problems, she said.

“The program is really an extension of the tradition that the Navy's had for over 200 years, that of leaders taking care of sailors and their families,” Laraway said. “We've focused a lot in the last few years on physical readiness, and now we're realizing that we need to spend as much time and effort on psychological fitness and resilience in order to help our sailors and their families become strong and ready to carry out the missions at hand.”

Because mental and behavioral health issues can carry a stigma, she said, it’s a difficult topic to get sailors to address. But programs across the Navy and the Defense Department have helped to reduce that stigma, she added.

Laraway said she wants the Operational Stress Control Program to further that idea by giving sailors a preventive resource to help in handling stress.

“We want the Navy to be a place where sailors recognize the effects of stress and know how to deal with it, to prevent things from becoming crises or problems,” she said. “The program really is aimed to help sailors and leaders thrive in the midst of these stressful situations.

“To that end,” she continued, “we've developed training tools, practical techniques based upon sound medical research, as well as lessons learned from the combat exposure and from our combat leaders.”

Laraway said her program is different from similar groups in the other services, because the Navy has different stress-control needs. For the most part, she said, stress among sailors has more to do with work schedules and deployment itself, rather than boots-on-the-ground problems such as combat and improvised explosive devices.

“Their day-to-day stressors are not about being in the sand, they’re not about IEDs,” Laraway said. “It’s about their regular deployment schedule, the increased [operational tempo] of our ships. … There’s a little bit different focus, in that the Marines [and other services] have a little more reliance on combat operational stress, and we’re focusing more on the broader picture for the Navy of operational stress, because every sailor experiences operational stress, whether they're in combat or not.”

The program also follows the old saying “You recruit the sailor, you keep the family” by providing assistance to family members while their sailor is deployed.

“Certainly, you can't separate one from the other,” she said, “because if you have a sailor who is deployed and is trying to focus on the mission, but he's aware of stresses in the family, that can be very, very serious, and it all affects mission readiness. And so we need to look at the whole picture.

“Just as a coach would never let a world-class athlete go into competition unprepared,” she added, “the leadership must ensure that our sailors and their families have every available resource to excel, both in their personal and their professional lives.”

(Ian Graham works in the Defense Media Activity’s emerging media directorate.)

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