The Importance of Mental Health Discussions

I’ve been in the military (World’s Greatest Navy, Hoo Yah!) for almost 12 years. Boot camp was a long time ago but one of the things that I remember vividly is the Stress Continuum course. In a nut shell, it’s broken down into four color levels from green to red. It’s fairly basic; I’m sure you’ve seen similar models. I remember this course better than others because it gets reinforced on a constant basis through our annual trainings, safety briefs, development boards, ad hoc briefings, etc. By year three, people tend to zone out when they have to sit through a mental health/ suicide/ substance abuse training. It can get a bit tedious and sometimes seems like overkill. As important as the topics are, I can understand why people roll their eyes when it gets brought up again.

We obviously know that suicide is a problem in the military (and elsewhere). A few years ago, my detachment did about a dozen “22 push-up challenge” videos. The idea behind it was to spread the word about the 22 military and veteran suicides every day. The problem, nothing actually improved. Suicide is still a problem and people still don’t want to talk about it. It’s not just suicide; mental health and addiction are also topics that people avoid. It’s funny, as much as my Chiefs advocate seeking help, I’ve also sat in meetings where we (the mid-level leaders) were told to tell our Sailors to “grow a pair and stop bitching about little things.” I say funny but it’s really quite sad. The little things are what can push a person over the edge!

I can’t speak for other organizations but in my experience, it normally falls on a select few to be the advocates for our people when they need support. One of the collateral duties I’ve taken on is Asst. Suicide Prevention Coordinator. I’ve been very open regarding my own struggles with suicide, addiction, and mental health so when I give a brief or say that they can talk to me about anything, they know I’m not full of it or just trying to cover my you know what. One of the biggest roadblocks to getting help is…the lack of help available! I sent one of my Sailors to see mental health at the local base hospital…2.5 months before she can do check-in and see a counselor! That’s absurd! Now, I know that there are other resources available to fill that gap but sometimes that’s like applying a band-aid after losing a limb. It just doesn’t cut it!

I don’t know what the solution is (aside from hiring more counselors but I have zero control over that) so I’m going to keep doing my best to help out my people. I attended a course recently called LivingWorks ASIST (Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training) that teaches a variety of techniques and skills designed to help with suicide first aid. They teach that if someone in your life is suicidal, the goal isn’t to help them fix all their problems at that moment. The goal of suicide first aid is to make sure they are “Safe For Now.” All we should do at that moment is get the person to a safe place. Maybe that’s the ER. Maybe it’s their grandma’s house. Perhaps focus on their pet duck that needs food and water. Whatever it takes to keep them Safe for Now. Like I said earlier, a lot of times this falls to the mid-level supervisors. I’ve developed such a report with my people that I’m helping navigate mental health related issues on a weekly basis; they know that I’m going to help to the best of my abilities while maintaining confidentiality until otherwise necessary. Two days ago, one of my Sailors suggested I have a chat with one of the other Sailors. He was worried and didn’t know how to get her the help she needed so he came to me.

I think that’s what we should strive to do with those around us. For junior employees, if you or someone in your life has a problem and you don’t know where to turn, find someone that you trust; perhaps a manager who has been down that road. For managers, we need to develop the skills necessary to help those around us. Part of that means that we need to have frank discussions on the topics. Showing another powerpoint presentation on suicide trends and numbers is boring. I get why people zone out during that “training.” I know not everyone has experiences similar to mine. Maybe you feel uncomfortable talking about suicide or mental health because of the stigma associated with those topics. That (in my opinion) is one of the biggest obstacles people face towards getting help. A lack of knowledge on resources and options. Educating ourselves on those options is the easiest way to ensure that everyone around us remains Safe For Now. If you don’t feel comfortable talking about it, a quick Google search will likely show you a plethora of resources or advocates in your area that can help out!

I don’t know what the solution is. All I can do is help those around me to the best of my abilities. That’s really all any of us can do. Maybe peer to peer counseling is the best solution. Change starts small. I truly believe that I have made a positive impact on my Sailors and have helped them become better equipped to take care of themselves and/ or seek help if needed. If I can use my negative experiences to help others through their own trials and tribulations, I’ll mark that in the win column. Who knows; maybe one of these kids will go on to help others at their next command. Small changes, small wins, one day at a time. As long as we try our hardest to improve the lives of ourselves and those around us, that’s a big win for everyone. I’ll take that solution until something better comes along.

Thank you for following along on this journey. As always; keep calm, carry on, and may the Force be with you.

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Mike Smith

Sober since 08 Oct 2019. US Navy since 2011. Future Social worker and addiction counselor.