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Psychiatrist Underscores Army Leadership’s Mental Health Commitment

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

WASHINGTON, May 30, 2008 – The Army is committed to providing better access to mental health care and eliminating the stigma associated with seeking help, a senior Army psychiatrist said yesterday.

“We need to have a range of choices available in the Army and outside of the Army so that a soldier who is feeling difficulty or is in trouble can reach out and get the help that they need,” Col. (Dr.) Elspeth Ritchie, director of the Army surgeon general’s office for behavioral health, told online journalists and bloggers in a conference call.

Expanding the network of mental health care providers who accept the military’s Tricare health plan and helping civilian providers to know how to screen for traumatic brain injury are just a couple of the efforts under way, she said.

Ritchie said Army health care providers need to look at how they treat other diseases, such as malaria, and apply that same model of treatment to maintaining good mental health.

“We need to employ the full range of prevention, mitigation and treatment to that disease as we do for malaria,” she explained. “When we bring soldiers to an area where they might attract malaria, we drain the swamps, [and] we introduce prophylactic medications and bug repellant. Then, if the soldiers become ill, we treat them. Similarly, we need to look at good mental health that way.”

She said the Army has programs already in place, such as the “Battlemind” training program, to deal with deployment-related mental health issues, but said the service always is trying to find ways to improve them. Soldiers receive Battlemind training before, during and after deployments, and the Army also has versions of the training for family members.

“We have done a lot of surveillance … [that] shows that soldiers who have achieved this Battlemind training reported fewer psychological health symptoms,” Ritchie said.

Also in place is a chain-teaching program begun last year that trains soldiers to recognize post-traumatic stress disorder and mild traumatic brain injury. She added that more than 900,000 soldiers have been trained since July so they can help each other and treat the condition.

A fear that seeking mental health care would label them as weak or hurt their careers is something the Army is working hard to eliminate, Ritchie said, “so that soldiers will think that it is OK to go in and get help, and not only think, but know that it is OK to go in and get help.”

Ritchie added that officials are looking into expanding both inpatient and outpatient services and providing more access to treatment.

“We want to expand our intensive outpatient services,” she said. “We think at the moment there is too much of a gap between [appointments for] the kind of once-a-month outpatient,” she said. “And we would like to have more [inpatient] programs than we currently have, where soldiers could go five days a week for four to five hours a day, and that is something we are actively working on.”

She said officials also are looking at lining up alternative treatments for their patients, researching various options to see which ones really work. “Some of these have received a lot of press, such as virtual reality therapy, [but] where we are now is, although the therapies are interesting, we don’t have the hard data to show which therapies are useful for what population,” Ritchie said.

She noted that Fort Bliss, Texas, has a program that includes meditation, yoga and martial arts, to name a few alternative treatments. Active research programs in virtual reality are getting a close look at military medical facilities in San Diego and the national capital region and at Fort Sill, Okla., she added.

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

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