Deploying mental health care downrange

  • Published
  • By Shireen Bedi
  • Air Force Surgeon General Public Affairs
Deployed mental health providers play a vital role in delivering medical care downrange, ensuring the health of the warfighter and the mission.

Even though service members who deploy are medically ready, both physically and mentally, the rigors of deployment can take a toll.

“Deployments can be stressful and service members are away from their normal coping mechanisms,” said Capt. Karen Schaefer, a forensic psychology postdoctoral fellow at the Air Force Office of Special Investigations, Quantico, Virginia, who deployed in April 2017 for seven months. “When those stressors become too much, deployed service members must have access to care.”

According to Maj. Michael Ann Glotfelter, director of Clinical Health Psychology at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, deployed mental health providers fulfill different capacities than they do in garrison. One of the reasons for this is that Airmen who deploy are stable from a mental health perspective, meaning there is less need for prolonged care.

“In a deployed location, we mainly focus on prevention and early intervention,” said Glotfelter. “We use channels such as briefs about normal adjustment on arrival, and base-wide events to shift service members’ perspectives toward the positives in our daily lives”

Much of what mental health providers do downrange involves things like classes on sleep or resiliency, working with units on basic stress management, being available for individual, one-on-one counseling for more elevated issues or concerns, and setting up programs for targeted interventions.

“One targeted intervention is the Combat Operational Stress Control program, only offered to deployed service members,” said Schaefer. “That program delivers educational materials and gives first responders a chance to speak specifically about combat operational stress, over the course of four sessions.”

In a deployed setting, these types of interventions helps service members stay in the fight and support the mission.

“We saw people for insomnia and other sleep-related issues and within two to three visits, we were able to address those issues to improve their sleep quality,” said Maj. Adam Dell, the flight commander and director of Psychological Health for the 71st Flying Training Wing, Vance Air Force Base, Oklahoma.

Schaefer explains the mental health in a deployed setting reduces the number of aeromedical evacuations for mental health reasons, because they provided the necessary support for service members.

“We had people who were not quite sure where to go next and felt that the only way they could get better was to go home,” said Schaefer. “With treatment and facilitating slight changes, people overcame those stressors and continued doing their job.”

As Dell explains, deployment is stressful and many service members may have normal reactions to possibly stressful situations. Deployed mental health providers provide critical support for the warfighter, ensuring their resiliency, maintaining readiness, and safeguarding their ability to perform downrange.

“I believe that our best men and women are still men and women at best, and deployment can take a toll on their mental health,” said Dell. “Our goal [as mental health providers] is to foster that strong sense of belonging among our brothers and sisters in armed services, providing any support and interventions that keep them healthy and in the fight.”