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Embedded mental health essential during pandemic (Part 1)

  • Published
  • By Peter Holstein
  • Air Force Surgeon General Public Affairs

Embedded Air Force mental health professionals play a critical role in keeping Airmen mission ready, and during the COVID-19 pandemic they are even more important to maintaining readiness.

Air Force missions continue without pause during the pandemic. While processes, schedules and procedures changed to minimize risk, Airmen are still flying, repairing equipment and conducting other essential duties. With the pandemic compounding the normal stress of the job, Airmen benefit greatly from embedded mental health resources.

Embedded mental health assets work directly with specific units, sharing their workspaces, engaging with leadership, teaching classes, and providing quick, direct access to mental health interventions. This model offers several benefits, says Lt. Col. Alan Ogle, mental health lead for Airmen Resiliency Teams at the 480th Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Wing.

“Embedded mental health provides robust mission-resiliency training and events, suicide intervention skills training, and team building activities to enhance unit cohesion and performance,” said Ogle. “They teach leaders new skills to support Airmen in crisis, and provide resiliency ‘over-watch’ for hazards and opportunities to improve health, well-being and mission performance.”

Embedded mental health providers build relationships with squadron members and leaders. They are right there on the flight line or to respond to any emergent health crisis.

“We are deemed essential staff, allowed into the restricted access facility during the pandemic,” said Dr. Nicole Stoughton, a clinical psychologist embedded in the 50th Operations Group at Schriever Air Force Base in Colorado. “Our group has a 24-hour, no-fail mission. We are with them around the clock, even during COVID-19.”

More than providing easy access, embedded providers also provide enduring resources and training to build mental resilience within the unit. Teams often rotate between squadrons on base, so they teach skills units can use once the health team moves on.

“We provide onsite preventive education, personal consultation and support tailored to unit missions and challenges,” said Ogle. “We build relationships and trust with the unit so they feel comfortable coming to us for help. We can often address concerns before they require intensive treatment.”

Operating in COVID-19 presents challenges for delivering mental health care.

“Mental health providers prefer to meet in person, which can be a challenge in the current situation,” said Ogle. “We can still do that when embedded in the restricted area, while observing precautions like social distancing, wearing masks, and handwashing. We are also offering more support through virtual platforms.”

The 480th ISRW spans multiple locations across the globe. At the Wing’s Ramstein Air Base location in Germany, the Airmen Resiliency Team supporting the 693 ISR Group found a unique way to boost unit moral.

“We are an intelligence unit, so we don’t have windows. We had a giant building with a big blank wall, so we turned it into a drive-in movie theater for the unit,” said Capt. Portmann “P.J.” Werner, a Chaplain assigned to the 693rd ISR Group Airmen Resiliency Team. “It was a real moral boost, even for people who couldn’t come, just to know we’re here for them.

“Nowadays, everything is new, and we’re struggling to define what ‘normal’ looks like. Taking the resources we have and thinking outside the box helps our Airmen get through this.”

For Ogle, being embedded in the operational space and on-call 24 hours a day is a big difference maker. Early intervention is critical to preventing a mental health issue from risking the mission, or even lives.

“We have a very forward leaning posture,” said Ogle. “We can engage people early in their crisis, before it escalates. When they know and trust you, they come to you. Maybe they just see you in the hallway. That lowers the stigma of seeking care in the clinic. Our services are even more essential during the pandemic.”

This is the first part of a series focusing on how embedded mental health professionals are helping Airmen cope with stress during the COVID-19 pandemic.