FORT POLK, La. — May is Mental Health Awareness Month; since 1949, organizations like Mental Health America have been using the media and local events to reach people.
At the Joint Readiness Training Center and Fort Polk, the Bayne-Jones Army Community Hospital’s behavioral-health team works to accomplish the same goal: To reach people and spread awareness about the reality and prevalence of mental health illnesses.
Maj. Ashley Cesar, chief of behavioral health for BJACH, highlighted the importance of this month for the military.
“Military personnel are at a higher risk for experiencing mental illnesses. We are routinely exposed to traumatic experiences, and we have to make quick decisions in short time frames with small margins for error,” she said. “We have to remain on guard for symptoms of stress and depression.”
Although service members are at a higher risk, there are roadblocks that deter Soldiers from getting help.
Pfc. Fabiana Pettroza, behavioral health technician, believes that one of the most important goals of this month’s awareness campaign is to help Soldiers see past one of the largest obstacles.
“There is a mental-health stigma in the military, and I think it’s important to recognize that and note that seeking help isn’t shameful,” she said.
Other barriers to treatment may include cultural background, fear of appearing weak, repercussions and ineligibility for special programs.
“Special schools and programs do mental-health evaluations prior to entrance, and Soldiers worry that behavioral-health encounters may impact their eligibility for those programs,” said Pettroza.
“This doesn’t automatically preclude Soldiers from those programs,” said Cesar.
Cesar explained that, although not every Soldier will have identical treatment outcomes, simply having encounters with behavioral health isn’t going to stop them from achieving their goals.
Fighting these misconceptions takes information and awareness, one of the goals of Mental Health Awareness Month.
Takenya Jones-Stewart, substance abuse social worker at JRTC and Fort Polk detailed some of the behavioral-health team’s efforts in reaching Soldiers and their Families to spread awareness. “We have fairs, giving Soldiers the opportunity to get information about services that are available,” she said.
As COVID-19 continues to impact everyone’s status quo, this year’s mental health awareness month has focused its efforts on posts through BJACH’s Facebook page. The reach doesn’t end there, however.
At JRTC and Fort Polk, there are several avenues of approach for getting help. Soldiers can utilize walk-in appointments and may benefit from command referrals. There are also medical referrals to behavioral health through primary care providers or as suggested follow-up treatments/appointments for continued care after an emergency room visit, for example.
“We are able to accommodate all of those avenues, in addition to offering virtual services. We have tele-health options through the Brooke Army Medical Center at Fort Sam Houston, Texas. If you’re not able to get an immediate appointment in the clinic at BJACH, then we can offer that virtual service, as well,” said Cesar.
“Command referrals can be a great tool that I would encourage commanders to use, if they do have specific questions about changes in behavior or the overall Soldier,” said Cesar. “If we don’t take this step to make sure you’re being seen by someone, that Soldier is likely to suffer in silence.”
Jones-Stewart added that command referrals “work in a positive way. Sometimes, a Soldier just needs to come in and see what behavioral health is about, because they have been convinced of the stigma. Command referrals can help to jumpstart what needs to happen.”
Regardless of the approach, reaching out can be a difficult task for anyone who may be suffering from anxiety or depression. Making that choice, however, is a sign of toughness.
“It does take a lot for someone to take that first step and to be vulnerable with someone you don’t know about intimate details in your life. It takes a lot of courage and strength to do that,” said Cesar.
Lt. Col. Michael A. Davidson, command surgeon for JRTC and Fort Polk underscored the significance of mental health and this month’s aim for spreading awareness.