ROYAL AIR FORCE MILDENHALL, England — Airmen often go to the fitness center; some spend several hours a week toning their bodies, while others go to simply maintain their physique. But what about strengthening the mind?
What’s going on in between the ears is just as important, if not more, than trying to build biceps or washboard abs. To help Airmen and their families stay mentally balanced, the Air Force provides several resources, such as mental health clinics, to assist them.
“The primary mission for all mental health clinics is making sure Airmen are mentally fit,” said Capt. Ingrid Gittens, the 48th Medical Operation Support Squadron Mental Health Flight director of psychological health. “We take care of them so they can go back to the mission and perform at their optimum level. We give them the tools to be able to weather any difficulties and stressors.”
Stress, both on and off duty, can have a negative impact on Airmen and, ultimately, the mission.
“We know that if an active-duty member is worried about something that is going on at home, then they are more than likely not going to be able to perform at work,” said Gittens, who’s also a licensed clinical social worker. “We have our family advocacy program where we provide marital counseling as a part of our prevention services. We also offer individual counseling along with a variety of therapy protocols to address mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.”
According to Gittens, seeking professional care will not negatively impact an Airman’s career.
“Mental health does not kill careers,” Gittens said. “It’s how long you wait to get it treated that is the real concern. The earlier you come, the better it is; that way you can address it, take care of it and do something about it. Early intervention is the best way to go.”
The mental health clinic isn’t the only resource Airmen can use. The Air Force provides several other options to keep its service members mentally sharp.
“The Military Family Life Advice Consultant program is one of them, the chaplain is another and now we have a behavioral health optimization program, which is a mental health provider in the family health setting,” Gittens said. “They work together with the primary care manager. Anybody can see them if they just want to get some advice or they want to deal with some low-level stressors.”
Through the chapel, Airmen and their family members can speak privately to an Air Force chaplain regardless of their religious preferences.
“Privileged communication extends to anybody and is every Airman and their dependents’ right,” said Lt. Col. Timothy Porter, the 100th Air Refueling Wing head chaplain. “Their communication with us is protected and that helps in our mental fitness because there is a place where (Airmen) can go that they can talk to someone, vent, steam and even cry if they need to. They can problem solve with us and that information is not going anywhere. It’s going to stay between them and the chaplain.”
The chapel also offers marriage care retreats, family care retreats and single retreats to enable Airmen to unwind and reconnect with their family and friends.
“Socializing and gathering with people and talking though life issues with each other plays a huge part in your mental outlook,” Porter said.
Socializing is one of many key factors that play a role in maintaining mental fitness.
“Being mentally strong takes a community. It’s not just how you handle your emotions, it’s staying physically active and having good social connections,” Gittens said. “The stronger the roots are in your community the more likely the stronger the person, not that they wouldn’t feel stress, but they would be better able to cope with it.”
Gittens encourages Airmen and their supervisors to play an active role to be there for their wingman if they notice any behavioral or emotional changes.
“I encourage supervisors to ask questions,” Gittens said. “It opens a line of communication. They may not tell you everything, but at least they know there is somebody they can really trust. Early intervention and building trust within your unit is what is important.”
Seeking help is vital and there are multiple resources for Airmen and their dependents. For more information on resources available, visit Military One Source.
“We’re here to help and support Airmen and their families so they gain a sense of purpose, continue to serve and continue to be a part of this great Air Force,” Porter said.