Editor’s note: In recognition of Mental Health Awareness Month in May, I interviewed the Fort Polk installation director of psychological health. We discussed initiatives, resources, the continuum of care, and other related topics to help the community understand the depth and breadth of the mental health program offered at Fort Polk.
Lt. Col. Alexander Ragan, a licensed clinical social worker, and the chief of the behavioral health department at BJACH serves as the installation director of psychological health.
According to Department of Defense Instruction 6409.09 dated April 25, 2017, the IDPH ensures coordination of clinical counseling, and other services promoting the psychological health of service members and their Families. The IDPH works directly for the installation commanding general to integrate clinical and mental health specialty services with other counseling and supportive services at the installation level.
Question: Sir, how do you see your role at the JRTC and Fort Polk?
Answer: There are many agencies and programs that support the psychological needs of our Soldiers and Families; my job is to bring us all together to support the mental and behavioral health of our community.
At the installation level, I keep the senior mission commander and local commanders informed about the psychological health of Soldiers and their Families. I address any concerns about prevention, early intervention and treatment, and how patient needs are being met. I report on the adequacy of staffing, organizational processes and installation resources needed to meet the demands of the installation. I recommend courses of action to ensure that access to adequate mental health services are provided throughout the deployment cycle and during unique surge situations. Finally, I help coordinate military and non-military services through a variety of programs, including the commander’s Ready, Resilient Council, installation senior medical council, sexual assault review board, installation prevention team and other installation meetings where appropriate.
Question: Wow, that’s a lot. What is your role at the hospital?
Answer: At BJACH, I track a variety of metrics to ensure Soldiers and their Families can get services in our department. This includes ensuring walk-in availability, follow-up appointments are scheduled, and that group and individual treatment options meet the needs of our beneficiaries. I maintain relationships with other departments at the hospital to provide patients with a warm hand off if behavioral health services are needed or recommended for them. I also support the BJACH team by supporting them in sustaining employee resiliency and hopefully, decreasing the potential for compassion fatigue and burnout often experienced in the medical profession.
Question: You and I spend a lot of time traveling around the state to our network providers in the community. How do they play a role in the IDPH program?
Answer: Yes, it’s important to engage network partners to increase and sustain behavioral health capabilities services for our beneficiaries in outpatient, intensive outpatient, and inpatient settings.
Question: We’ve been updating our website and sharing information on the new Targeted Care program (www.bayne-jones.tricare.mil/Health-Services/Mental-Health-Substance-Misuse/Targeted-Care) recently launched by the Defense Health Agency. What is it?
Answer: Our installation was selected to participate in the DHA Targeted Care Pilot Program. Targeted Care matches individuals seeking care to the appropriate support.
Examples of support include making an appointment with a specialty behavioral health care provider or a primary care behavioral health consultant or connecting them to non-medical support such as military and family life counselors, chaplains, Military OneSource, and others.
Individuals who are vectored into specialty behavioral health care may attend group therapy sessions to meet their needs. Individual therapy within behavioral health is also an option. This increases access to care, reduces the time spent waiting for initial and follow-up-mental health appointments, and increases readiness.
Question: I notice you say behavioral health sometimes and mental health sometimes. What is the difference?
Answer: The words sometimes are used in similar places, but they mean different things. From my perspective, the term mental health implies an individual’s psychological state, whereas behavioral health is a broader term.
Behavioral health is a holistic approach that includes an individual’s mind, body, and spirit. I view it in the context of what someone has control over, versus what they do not.
First, we look to prevention and early intervention or self-help as the first step in the continuum of treatment for symptoms that are impacting the person’s quality of life.
If that is not working to the patient’s satisfaction, we begin looking for other resources such as peer support groups.
Finally, if this is still not working for the patient, the next step would be medical care. My hope is with the Targeted Care program and a shift in mindset to optimizing our behavioral health, we can increase the mental, physical, and spiritual readiness of our Soldiers, Families, and our community.
Question: This year the reoccurring theme I keep seeing and reading about is: Mental health is health. What does that me to you?
Answer: To me it is a continuum with feeling great on one end and struggling with day-to-day activities and loss of interest in things we normally enjoy on the other end.
When we are mentally healthy and feeling good or mentally strong, we will thrive. When we are struggling, we may need to seek out ways to better manage our self-care.
Mental health is an important part of overall health and well-being, yet mental illness affects millions of people worldwide.
Question: Can you talk more about the continuum of self-care. What is it and why is it important to understand when seeking help for a personal problem?
Answer: Self-care is often described as a continuum, starting with individual choices on health, this includes our personal choices, our diet, exercise, and sleep habits.
The second stop on the continuum is feeling comfortable to reach out to family members, the chain of command and others for suggestions and ideas to take better care of ourselves. At this step, a person must also be willing to take that advice.
The continuum can include support from non-medical and medical resources such as Ready and Resilient Performance Centers, military and family life counselors, chaplains and BJACH behavioral health services.
Question: The DoD has issued guidance that allows service members to start their own referral for a mental health evaluation as part of the new Brandon Act. What does that mean for our Soldiers at the JRTC and Fort Polk?
Answer: The Brandon Act is a law that creates a confidential, self-initiated referral process for service members seeking a mental health evaluation.
The Brandon Act is named after Petty Officer 3rd Class Brandon Caserta who died by suicide in 2018.
The legislation was signed into law by President Joe Biden on December 27, 2021, as part of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2022.
The DoD policy directs the secretaries of the military departments to establish policy, assign responsibilities, and provide procedures for service members to request a referral for a mental health evaluation through a commanding officer or supervisor. The new process allows service members to seek help confidentially, for any reason, at any time, and in any environment, and aims to reduce the stigma associated with seeking mental health care.
For example, a Soldier can go to his supervisor (E6 or above) or commander and request behavioral health services. The Soldier is then set up with an appointment to come into behavioral health.
I do want to point out that a Soldier can still go to behavioral health without command or supervisor involvement or a referral. We have a robust mental health program here at Fort Polk and I encourage anyone struggling with the continuum of self-care to reach out for support.
Question: What types of activities does BJACH participate in, to promote mental health awareness?
Answer: In celebration of Mental Health Awareness Month, the behavioral health team conducted a televised interview on KALB’s Good Day CENLA, (https://www.kalb.com/video/2023/05/01/mental-health-month/) visited Longleaf and Brentwood Hospitals and Oceans Healthcare. We conducted health promotions activities during lunch at the post main exchange, hit the airwaves on KJAE and KVVP radio stations in Leesville, Louisiana. And our behavioral health specialists devised a moral boosting activity to engage the bodies, minds and spirits or our hospital staff to raise awareness and provide education about behavioral health resources on and off the installation.
For more information about the mental, behavioral and substance misuse service available at BJACH and the installation visit: www.bayne-jones.tricare.mil/Health-Services/Mental-Health-Substance-Misuse.