Air Force partners with NYU for mental health technician toolkit

  • Published
  • By Shireen Bedi
  • Air Force Surgeon General Public Affairs
The Air Force is partnering with New York University to develop a toolkit for mental health technicians working with Airmen and Guardians outside of a traditional clinical setting.

Improving access to mental health care continues to be a top priority, and one way the Air Force is doing that is through Integrated Operational Support, or IOS. Through IOS, Air Force Medical Service mental health technicians work with clients or patients directly in their operational units, contributing to the readiness of Airmen and Guardians.

The goal was to address individual and unit-level health concerns early before they have the chance to negatively impact the mission.

“In the military treatment facility, Airmen and Guardians come to us with an identified issue or concern and our primary goal is to bring them back up to baseline or otherwise restore their functioning,” said Master Sgt. James Elliott, Mental Health Integrated Operational Support Manager, Air Force Medical Readiness Agency. “We don’t usually spend a lot of time in the MTF talking about performance enhancement. When we are placed within units, we take on a prevention focus to optimize human performance. The skillsets may be similar in both settings, but the way you approach a patient or client will be different.”

To prepare mental health technicians for the non-clinical setting, Air Force IOS leadership, NYU researchers and a 12-person Air Force advisory committee are developing a toolkit that focuses on coaching, team-building and motivational interviewing. The toolkit provides vetted approaches that technicians can implement in their unit to be the most effective.

“We wanted to look at the breadth of work that mental health technicians perform in these roles and see how we can develop interventions we know work in this setting,” said Elliott. “A lot of these skills we are familiar with in a clinical setting, but this toolkit provides ways to apply these tools outside the clinic.”

The advising mental health technicians described the type of work they do inside operational units, the challenges they face, and the support they would like to offer to new technicians preparing for the role.

“For example, we included several team-building exercises we have done in our units and also provided scenarios that would help newer technicians know what to expect and how to be successful in their role,” said Tech. Sgt. Aubrey Pearce, non-commissioned officer in charge of operational psychology on the Airman Resiliency Team. “The NYU researchers did a great job in dissecting the need and translating that into effective tools and approaches.”

Developing this toolkit also speaks to the increasingly important role they play to overall readiness mission.

“We are not just provider extenders, we are also ready, capable medics,” said Elliott. “We all got into this profession to help our military population achieve their goals. We do that in the military treatment facility, but in the operational unit setting, we can strictly focus on our Airmen, Guardians and their operational mission.”

As Pearce explains, working from within the unit is similar to how he delivered care when he deployed.

“Only two and a half years after joining the military, I got off the plane in Afghanistan where I was tasked with supporting members at a blackout [forward operating base],” said Pearce. “It took some adjustment because it’s nothing like working in the clinic and it can be stressful when you first get into that setting and away from a clinical mindset. I’m glad we are developing this toolkit because it provides mental health technicians a better understanding of what to expect and to ensure they can do their jobs successfully on the first day.”

Currently, the Air Force IOS team and NYU researchers are finalizing training videos to accompany the toolkit, but also have a bigger plan for the toolkit’s future.

“In addition to building upon our relationship with NYU and adding more tools, we want to get to a point where this toolkit is accessible and useful for all of our techs - be they at the MTF, in a stateside operational unit, or deployed - to help us with our prevention-focused activities,” said Elliott. “Our job is paramount and we have a valued skillset, so we need to make sure our mental health technicians have the resources they need that allows them to do what they do best - help our Airmen and Guardians.”

Air Force mental health technicians can access an early version of the toolkit on the Knowledge Exchange site here, or by emailing Master Sgt. James T. Elliott via his contact in the Global Access List. (Note: This site is restricted and requires a common access card; users without a common access card will receive a website error message)