Leaders Can Make A Difference

We’ve all had times in our training efforts when we simply hit a plateau – that point where doing the same old things just doesn’t seem to get us where we need to be in meeting our goals.  So, what do we do? Do we simply continue on the same path, or do we alter our strategies, or maybe even re-dedicate ourselves to meeting the core objectives?   Your Navy Operational Stress Control Program team has been developing and presenting Navy-wide training and education opportunities for the last year – providing more than 100,000 Sailors with the tools and resources that can help them identify life stressors and learn ways to navigate through the toughest of times.

Additional OSC content has been developed for inclusion at all levels of leadership training, including the Naval Academy and Senior Enlisted Academy.  But, is this sufficient to break down the long established barriers to seeking help to maintain psychological health or have we hit a plateau?

Our education and training emphasizes the importance and impact of leadership actions on a command’s approach to building resilience and its attitudes towards psychological health in general. We’re making progress in building awareness and providing practical tools, but some health care professionals feel the military has hit a plateau when it comes to “…decreasing the stigma associated with seeking mental health treatment.”  Bret Moore, the author of the following article offers some practical advice to leaders at all levels.  See if Moore’s tips can help you as a Navy leader break through this cultural plateau and get us all to become active proponents of psychological fitness through understanding, acceptance and inspirational leadership.

Today’s post is a reprinted with the permission of Bret Moore and the Army Times Publishing Co.

Leaders can lessen treatment stigma
by Bret Moore

The stigma associated with seeking mental health treatment in the military is a topic that I have briefly discussed in several previous columns.

This week, I want to specifically ask all levels of leadership to help change the culture of the military and make seeking help for psychological problems as acceptable as seeking help for a torn hamstring or twisted ankle.

I recently attended a professional conference that taught civilian psychologists how to more effectively treat troops suffering from psychological problems. The line-up of speakers included Maj. Jeffrey Thomas and Dr. Joshua Wilk, two brilliant, dedicated psychologists from the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research – one of the premier research institutes in the country.

Amid the many statistics that these doctors provided to the attendees, on in particular caught my attention. It seems the military has made some gains in decreasing the stigma associated with seeking mental health treatment, but these gains have plateaued, and the perception of many service members remains that those who seek health care are weak, crazy or ‘shamming’ to get out of work.

As a former Army captain and a psychologist, I find this disturbing. It’s time for the leadership within the branches to do more at the unit level.  Here are the places to start:

  1. Stop embarrassing junior troops who are already getting mental health counseling. Several times during my career, I saw senior noncommissioned officers tell junior enlisteds to leave formation and go to their “psych” appointment. How would you like it if one of your supervisors told you during a meeting that you could be excused to run by the health clinic to see if the results from your STD screen were back?
  2. Officers must stop making jokes about mental health. Officers set the tone of a unit. If you make joking comments such as “I’m going to have psych put you away if you don’t shape up,” you reinforce the stigma, which will be passed down.
  3. Don’t’ use mental health as a punitive action. Referring someone to mental health for an evaluation is not an alternative to a counseling statement or Article 15.
  4. If you received mental health counseling in the past, consider sharing that. You don’t have to go into specifics, but you can let your people know it was helpful. They look up to you. Normalize it, and they’ll get help, too.

The military needs officers to set the unit standard that seeking mental health care is OK. And it needs senior enlisted leaders to enforce that standard by showing respect, thoughtfulness and support.  It’s time for the stigma to end.

Bret A. Moore is a board-certified clinical psychologist who served two tours in Iraq. E-mail kevlarforthemind@militarytimes.com. Names and identifying details will be kept confidential. This column is for informational purposes only and ins not intended to convey specific psychological or medical guidance. Readers should see a mental health professional or physician for mental health problems.

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