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Embedded mental health essential during pandemic (Part 2)

U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Briana Cavassa, 31st Dental Squadron dental technician, conducts a medical screening for Airmen returning from deployment at Aviano Air Base, Italy, May 11, 2020. To combat the spread of COVID-19, new screening procedures for returning Airmen have been implemented. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Savannah L. Waters)

U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Briana Cavassa, 31st Dental Squadron dental technician, conducts a medical screening for Airmen returning from deployment at Aviano Air Base, Italy, May 11, 2020. To combat the spread of COVID-19, new screening procedures for returning Airmen have been implemented. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Savannah L. Waters)

Image of Dr. Nicole Stoughton, Space Team for Airmen Resilience Team psychologist.

Dr. Nicole Stoughton, Space Team for Airmen Resilience Team psychologist, teaches a mindfulness session at the 50th OSS Monday Morning Mindfulness forum, Jan. 13, 2020. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, embedded mental health providers across the Air Force, like Dr. Stoughton, are helping Airmen deal with stress from the COVID-19 pandemic while they continuing essential Air Force missions. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Jonathan Whitely)

FALLS CHURCH, Va. -- Air Force mental health teams embedded in operational squadrons are helping Airmen deal with stress created by the COVID-19 pandemic to sustain essential operations during the crisis.

“I love my job,” said Dr. Nicole Stoughton, a clinical psychologist embedded in the 50th Operations Group at Schriever Air Force Base, Colorado. “Our space operators remain critical during the pandemic. We are there to provide resources, support and care to help with any added stress they feel.”

Embedded mental health took on an increased role during the COVID-19 pandemic. Airmen working in critical roles have added stress, while the pandemic limits traditional methods of mental health support.

“Dramatic changes to work and lifestyle routines can be very disruptive,” said Lt. Col. Alan Ogle, mental health team lead for the 480th Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Wing’s Airmen Resiliency Teams. “Embedded personnel provide a range of services to support healthy functioning, reduce stress and anxiety, and support Airmen during the pandemic.”

The stress brought on by COVID-19 frequently goes far beyond fears Airmen may have for their own health.

“Any time there is a change, we can see stress,” said Stoughton. “Isolation is a frequent contributor to many behavioral health issues. PCS [permanent change of station] moves are on hold during the pandemic, which can be very disruptive for Airmen who planned to be at a new base this summer. Many are separated from their family, and worried about them. Some haven’t been able to travel for loved ones’ funerals.”

Annie Carroll is a licensed clinical social worker assigned to the 48th Operational Medical Readiness Squadron at RAF Lakenheath, England. She is part of an Operational Support Team that embeds with Air Force units at several bases in England, including RAF Lakenheath, RAF Mildenhall, and RAF Feltwell. She notes that an overseas posting can compound other stresses as well.

“Our Airmen are a long way from home,” said Carroll. “Movement restrictions in the U.K. for COVID-19 are strict, so many Airmen feel very isolated right now. I see the pandemic really affecting people with preexisting stress. There is less going on now to take people’s mind off their problems, and fewer social interactions to build resilience.”

Building strong relationships is an important benefit of the embedded mental health model. As providers get to know Airmen, personal connections make it easier to share problems and concerns before they become a crisis.

“Sometime it’s a personal crisis, family member loss, relationship issue, suicidal ideation,” said Ogle. “With the pandemic, we’re seeing people dealing with many stages of worry, anxiety or grief. People miss their families, and having mental health resources accessible makes a big difference.”

Ogle says his teams reach out to each unit member to check on their well-being.

“We are coordinating with squadron leadership to identify members who might have a particularly difficult time, and devoting extra attention to them,” said Ogle.

Some bases, like RAF Mildenhall, had recently stood up embedded mental health programs when the pandemic struck. Carroll says that influenced their outreach efforts.

“We are working with outreach teams across the base to make sure Airmen know about the resources we offer,” said Carroll. “When leaders hear about us, they want us to work with their unit. It’s all about helping Airmen adjust to this new ‘abnormal’.”

The team at Schriever also conducted member wellness checks, while following virus mitigation measures. Their Airmen reported pandemic-related stress was significant during on- and off-duty times. Home life and family support are more challenging in this environment.

“Some of our Airmen are working double duty to help homeschool their kids,” said Stoughton. “We are finding that many of our Airmen aren’t afraid of contracting COVID, but the extra stress from all the conditions it creates can really build up, without as many normal stress relief activities.”

While these times are trying, mental health professionals are sharing hopeful messages for Airmen.

“We are walking this path with you,” said Stoughton. “Reach out to us, we are here to support you every day. It takes strength to seek help, but we’ll get through this together.”

Ogle shared the sentiment that Airmen will overcome the challenges.

“Airmen are amazing,” said Ogle. “I am humbled and impressed by their intelligence and discipline to adapt to the challenges of the pandemic, while still delivering their warfighting service to our nation. They are committed to caring for one another, at home and downrange. A pandemic is a different sort of operational hazard than we normally think of, however Airmen will get the job done.”

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

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