By Kari Hawkins, Redstone Rocket StaffMay 6, 2009
The health of the Army relies on the abilities of its war fighters.
Soldiers who are sick, injured or incapacitated in any way cannot be at their best in executing the Army's mission to support and protect the cause of freedom and the interests of the United States around the world. A healthy Army means its war fighters are healthy in all ways - both physically and mentally.
It's the mental health of the war fighter that is the central focus of Fox Army Health Center's Behavioral Medicine Division. And that focus is becoming broader and deeper as more Soldiers visit BMD to seek help for problems associated with deployments, working in a high-risk environment and dealing with the stresses that can come with wearing the uniform.
"Our mission is to treat active duty. This is our foremost mission," said Karen Scott, a licensed professional counselor with BMD. "Because of deployments, we've really ramped up in the number of active duty patients that we see. For that reason, we don't have services for family members and retirees right now. We are focusing all our efforts on helping the active duty Soldier."
Toward that end, BMD is now located in a newly-renovated second floor area of Fox Army Health Center, where there are offices and meeting rooms for Soldiers who are counseled either individually or in a group. BMD offers psychiatric and counseling services, group therapy, family advocacy and sexual assault counseling, drug and alcohol abuse prevention programs, smoking cessation programs, post traumatic stress disorder counseling, and traumatic brain injury diagnosis and treatment. During national Mental Health Month in May, BMD is encouraging all Redstone Arsenal Soldiers to consider their mental health and to seek out help if they have symptoms of a mental health issue.
"Mostly right now we are seeing Soldiers coming back from deployments, and they have a variety of issues they are dealing with," Scott said. "They may have sleep issues, combat stress issues, drinking problems, memory loss, marital problems and all the other issues and problems that can come with deployments. We want these Soldiers to come in and see us. We can help them get settled down pretty quickly if they only come see us."
Soldiers - both active duty and Reserve/National Guard -- returning from a deployment are required by the Army to go through a 180-day assessment, during which they are regularly monitored and counseled in regard to mental health issues. All Soldiers must have a routine physical health assessment through Fox's Warrior Medicine Clinic. But Soldiers returning from deployment must have post-deployment assessments at 30 days, 90 days and 180 days.
"Oftentimes, we will get referrals from the Warrior Medicine Clinic. But Soldiers can also come by self-referral. Some will tell us their wife wants them to come in because they've changed. Some will come because their commander or first sergeant or co-worker referred them," Scott said.
"If Soldiers are having problems, they have 180 days after their return from a deployment to get the help they need. If they are injured in any way in the line of duty - either physically or mentally - then that care can continue beyond the 180 days."
All Soldiers, regardless of whether or not they have deployed, may seek treatment at Fox's BMD. Soldiers overwhelmed by feelings of fear, guilt, shame, anger, depression and anxiety, or who suffer from mood swings, panic attacks, loss of spirituality and feelings of suicide should contact BMD.
"Even if they are worried about feeling these things, they should let someone know," Scott said. "Soldiers need to take care of themselves. They need to eat right, get plenty of exercise, avoid drugs and alcohol, and let someone know if they are having problems coping with their feelings."
When they first visit BMD, Soldiers undergo a behavioral health assessment.
"The Warrior Medicine Clinic addresses physical symptoms," Scott said. "What makes us unique is we work up front with the Soldier to establish a rapport that lasts all through counseling. Through our work with them, we want to help them understand why they are having trouble remembering things, sleeping, communicating with their spouse and reconnecting spiritually."
Soldiers who are willing to seek out mental health counseling often see the benefits right away, Scott said.
"If they come in to us, we work with them to get their symptoms under control and then we help them address their issues," Scott said. "We like to get their families involved in the counseling. We know how to help them if they let us."
Scott has been a counselor at Fox Army Health Center for more than 20 years. She has herself served in the Army in the mental health field, as have other professionals on staff. She has been active in counseling Soldiers throughout the past seven years of occupational contingency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The counseling Soldiers receive at Fox's BMD is inclusive.
"We look at the entire Soldier. We want a full perspective of what they are dealing with," Scott said. "We want to use all our services to help them get healthy.
"Even if we are seeing them for mental health issues, we also look at other things that could be going on with them. If they've had exposure to different chemicals or if they have hearing loss, we get them together with occupational health. If they are having mood swings, our psychiatrist can provide them with the medications to help."
The stigma often associated with mental health counseling is not as much of a barrier to treatment as it once was.
"We've seen a lot of changes since 1980," Scott said. "It used to be that officers at the lieutenant colonel and colonel ranks didn't come in to see us. Now, it includes all ranks. Soldiers are coming in no matter what their rank and getting the help they need.
"They've accepted that if they've been deployed then, of course, they're going to have sleep problems and be all keyed up. And lack of sleep can cause irritability, memory loss and relationship problems. Soldiers are realizing that behavioral medicine is part of whole health, and if they are not sleeping well or if they are all stressed out, it will affect their physical health."
Current Army policy and the movement within society for people to be proactive about their health have also helped to overcome the stigma.
"The physical health assessments are really working in catching things. Soldiers are more educated and more aware. Commanders are insisting their Soldiers get the help they need," Scott said.
Soldiers are also realizing that "in combat they have to numb themselves to what is happening just to survive. But once they are out of the war zone, they need to reconnect with their feelings. And sometimes feelings of anger and anxiety and sadness can be overwhelming," Scott said. "The healthy thing to do is to get the help they need, not to ignore the problem."
Often, Soldiers don't want to talk to their spouses or other relatives about their experiences because they don't want to expose their loved ones to their personal trauma. BMD provides them with the "safe place" where they can share their feelings and work through their trauma without the worry of being judged or having to deal with another person's negative reaction.
"We are trained professionals who know how to deal with trauma and how to help the Soldier deal with trauma," Scott said.
BMD uses several techniques to help Soldiers regain their mental health.
"Sometimes it's just about normalizing things for them," Scott said. "It's about feeling normal, feeling better, feeling healthier and feeling safer. We urge Soldiers to come in a see us just one time and see what it's like.
"We know it's hard to come through our door. It's hard to get over the initial anxiety. We respect that and treat them with dignity. But once they do come here, they are usually glad and will refer others to us."
For more information on BMD and its services, call 955-8888, ext. 1032.