Ending the stigma; USARAK leadership speaks out on soldier mental health

Published: Mar. 3, 2022 at 9:12 AM AKST
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Soldiers in Alaska have a unique opportunity to experience what the state has to offer. For some, the extremes of winter darkness, sub-zero temperatures, and 23-hour summer sunlight are adjustments service members stationed at Fort Wainwright Army Post in Fairbanks need to acclimate to and can play a role on their mental health.

An epidemiological consultation (EPICON) report released in 2019 found soldiers reported a number of perceived barriers to accessing behavioral health care.

From January 2014 through March 2019, 11 suicides were identified. In 2020, 7 suicides were reported, and in 2021, 11 suicides were reported with 6 under investigation.

Observed findings from the report were consistent with suicide cases in previous EPICONs.

“Soldiers who died by suicide had indications of multiple risk factors. These included pain, sleep, and relationship issues. Eight cases had documented pain issues. 10 of the 11 cases had interactions with the medical system during their period of service in the army, whereas only one case appeared to have had little interface beyond required physicals,” the report read.

The most common reasons were related to stigma. Soldiers felt leaders would see them differently and their pain would show them as weak. Soldiers also reported they were worried if they sought help it would harm their careers.

“It takes courage, first of all, to even mention it,” Fort Wainwright Garrison Commander Colonel Nate Surrey said. “I don’t know if it is societal, soldiers, or military. I think it might be a little higher in the military, that is my opinion, Because it could be considered as a sign of weakness maybe, and that is the culture we are trying to change,”

Other reasons included receiving time off for their visit and worrying if having a conversation with a behavioral health specialist would be kept confidential.

The report also stated, “In the month prior to taking the online survey, 10.8% of Fort Wainwright Army (FWA) soldiers reported suicidal ideation. Soldiers who reported greater resilience or social support were less likely to report past-month suicidal ideation; whereas, those with severe sleep problems, depression, loneliness, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, or hazardous drinking were more likely to report past-month suicidal ideation.”

The increased rate of soldier suicides encountered by U.S Army Alaska (USARAK) over the last several years has opened the eyes of many in leadership, spurring them to take action and find solutions to end this epidemic.

“We have a saying, hope is a weapon, and to gain hope is through connection, and connection with our soldiers and leaders,” said the United States Army Alaska Commanding General Major Brain Eifler during a media round table discussion. “Hope defeats despair every time and that is why we are using hope as a weapon.”

“What we were doing before was not necessarily working, and so it needed a fresh change and a way to look at things a little bit differently, so we can get at the prevention, a lot more than dealing with an incident,” Eifler continued.

USARAK is working to make changes to prevent suicide among service members by hiring more behavioral health specialists and implementing “Mission 100″.

This campaign is aimed at connecting with 100% of soldiers - leaders connected with soldiers, and soldiers connected with soldiers.

“Leaders contact 100% of soldiers’ spouses or next of kin. 100% of our soldiers will get a wellness check from behavioral health or the military family life counselor, and we have also established a dialogue amongst command teams here to share insights, techniques, and procedures that seem to be working,” Eifler explained.

With this program, Colonel Surrey says he has seen the success stories happening already. Misson 100 has resulted in better communication to what is going within a soldier’s life. “It’s one of the most powerful things I’ve seen in my 24 years,” Surrey said. “It’s already paying a lot of dividends because we are seeing a lot of soldiers come forward and ask for that help.”

Surrey also says soldiers need a connection with family, relationships with soldiers, and a mental health wellness check.

“A lot of times they may not come forward and say something, but if you’re having that meaningful dialogue, and you’re establishing that more trustworthy interpersonal relationship, then you’re gonna find out if that makes sense,” Surrey said. “By talking to the spouses and talking to the parents, or both, you’re gonna learn a lot more about that soldier.”

There are other programs and outlets in place for those who wish to seek help. The “open-door policy” was initiated to allow members to present concerns and problems either personal or professional. The Soldier Family Readiness Groups (MFLC) is a program that offers confidential, non-medical, solution-focused counseling, consultation, and education aimed at building military and family readiness and resiliency.

Surrey said the military is working hard to break the stigma around seeking help for these types of issues. He also had a message he wanted to share with those struggling with mental health: “I would tell them thank you for telling me, and it’s okay, and let’s get you some help.”

The goal of working together is to give service members the tools and support to get the help they need, and end the stigma surrounding mental health.

In the meantime, there is a military crisis line for those who wish to seek immediate guidance, available 24/7. The number is 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

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