Mental health care and the Military; One clinic hopes to break the stigma

Published: Aug. 29, 2022 at 5:06 PM AKDT|Updated: Aug. 29, 2022 at 6:12 PM AKDT
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FAIRBANKS, Alaska (KTVF) - When it comes to mental health for our military service members, veterans, and families, sometimes finding the right help can feel like a barrier.

In Fairbanks, one clinic is looking to break through those walls that surround mental health starting with a conversation.

Shannon Geese works as the Outreach Manager for the “Cohen Clinic” as she refers to it, and has seen the effects of mental health issues first-hand in the military moving as a child when her father was stationed at Eielson Air Force Base.

“My father was active duty Airforce stationed at Eielson, and my husband’s family was also stationed at Eielson, Active Duty Air Force,” Geese said. “My husband is currently Active Duty Air National Guard out at Eielson, and so are both of our children, and so is my sister-in-law for that matter. So yes we have been in the neighborhood for quite a while.”

Geese says working with the Cohen Clinic is a full-circle job for her. Her previous volunteerism also led her to find work that highlights the importance of mental health within the military community.

“It is an honor to serve not only the people that I live with, but those I interact with on a day in and day out basis,” Geese said. “In fact, almost all of us that work for the Cohen Clinic in the state are military-affiliated ourselves in one way or another - whether that be an active duty spouse or a retiree ourselves - one way or another we can connect to the military affiliation.”

Geese said this is what makes the Clinic unique. She and the staff she works with have an understanding on a personal level of what it is like to struggle with mental health within the military community.

Across Alaska, military service members, veterans, and their families make up a large part of the state’s population and communities. Mental health problems and soldier suicides have continued to affect our military and have been in the eyes of the public over the last several years.

In 2021, there were 11 soldier suicides reported in the state, and at the time there were an additional 6 deaths that were pending investigation. In February of 2022, U.S. Army Alaska, mainly Fort Wainwright, had the second-highest rate of suicides per capita among all U.S. Army installations over that year.

Since then the Army has implemented various tactics to change that statistic - from remodeling living and dining quarters to annual wellness checks.

“Because we are all military, in one way or the other you feel the losses a lot more than people think,” Geese said. “This last year was rough. It was really rough to see all these people dying simply because they didn’t feel like they could ask for help, or if they did they may or may not have got the answer that they needed at that moment.”

Now there are more services being added across the state, as the Steven A. Cohen Military Family Clinic teams up with Alaska Behavioral Health and military installations across Alaska to make sure needs are being met with regard to mental health.

In Fairbanks, the clinic celebrated its 1-year anniversary in July, and now that most COVID-19 restrictions have been lifted they are offering more than telehealth - they are now taking in-person clients. With their second location in Anchorage, they are able to provide services to the whole state.

“We are trying to get people to understand that mental health is for everyone and that it’s not a thing that we do, it is a state of being,” Geese said. “It is whether or not you are healthy in mind.”

What the Cohen Clinic offers is Evidence-Based Therapy, meaning it is backed up by science. Geese explained, “We make sure that all of the practices we implement within our clinical services are backed by Evidence-Based science that shows that they work.

Geese described how many service members constantly go through transitions - whether that be within the job, moving, having families, deployments, and many, many others.

“Mental health is a little bit different than it is on the outside,” Geese said. “We have a tendency to see a lot of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), anxiety, transition issues... but it can be your everyday ‘My child is going back to school,’ ‘We just PCS’ed (Permanent Change of Station) here,’ ‘I need to talk to somebody so as a family we can support our student through this next school year.’”

The clinic provides services to Active Duty military members, but it also caters to their families. Veterans, retirees, Guard members, and Reserves, in any branch, are all within the scope of services.

“One of the unique things about who we are and what we do is we want to be able to provide mental health support for the whole family,” Geese affirmed. “If you are a military member, we want to support your spouses, your dependents, your aunts, your uncles, and even a co-worker at times may qualify for services with us.”

Geese explained that breaking the stigma around mental health all starts with a conversation. If the Cohen Clinic isn’t the right fit for the individual’s specific needs, they work to find the resources that are right for that person. “The things that I think are so important when people are even thinking about mental help or wondering if they even need it, it is just to have a relational conversation where they understand that this isn’t a business for us - this really is personal.”

She said when mental health becomes a common thing to talk about and everyone hears and sees it, with no stigma attached, that is where the change will start. She explained that there is a large military presence in Alaska’s rural areas. With telehealth, they are able to accommodate more people who may need sometimes feel forgotten.

She hopes to put an end to the question: “Who do I call?”

When it comes to mental health, the Cohen clinic wants services to be readily available and known to all those seeking help, making it so those who are looking for help don’t have to search for that answer, but immediately know who to call.

More information on the Cohen Clinic can be found at the Alaska Behavioral Health website.

For those needing immediate assistance the suicide hotline is open 24 hours and can be reached by calling 988.