DOVER AIR FORCE BASE, Del. — For a machine to function properly, the screws must be set, balance maintained and gaskets must be in good condition. Maybe that’s why mental instability is often characterized as having a loose screw, being out of balance or blowing a gasket.
If a machine malfunctions, a mechanic attempts to diagnose the problem by inspecting the parts – identifying missing, misaligned or broken items – and coming up with a plan. At its simplest, mental health care is very much like machine repair, but the way it is done is much more nuanced. The problem isn’t mechanical or visible, and many times, the person seeking help doesn’t know how to verbalize what’s wrong.
Recognized as one of the four domains of Comprehensive Airman Fitness, the Air Force describes mental wellness as “the ability to effectively cope with unique mental stressors and challenges needed to ensure mission readiness.”
“In CAF, all the domains are important,” said Master Sgt. Kevin Burke, the 436th Airlift Wing CAF and Resilience Program manager. “You can think of each domain as a leg. If you knock out one of the legs, we’re going to be unstable. The mind is special, because it drives everything. If we don’t have a good grasp on what’s going on inside our heads, we get lost pretty easily.”
While the mental domain is one of four, each one is directly tied to the other three.
According to Burke, the spiritual domain is each individual’s core. It’s what motivates them. When people strengthen their minds through learning, their spiritual domain benefits through deeper understanding.
As a person strengthens their physical body, their mental strength and fortitude also increase. Chemicals are released through exercise that help ease the mental stress, and achieving personal goals is rewarding.
People who can’t control themselves mentally often find it hard to keep friends, so it’s easy to see how mental stability affects the social domain. Friends and family can also help people thrive in trying times when they form a strong support network and offer good advice.
Burke and other master resilience trainers teach four main principles that impact mental resilience: awareness, decision making, adaptability and positive thinking. He described them as:
Awareness is being aware of one’s self and others, or social awareness. It takes effort; nobody is automatically an expert at dealing with themselves or others.
Decision making is important in the Air Force, because young Airmen are often trusted to make life-or-death decisions, or charged with expensive aircrafts and equipment. Leaders need to know they can make sound decisions.
Adaptability is the ability to cope with change. In the military, change is the only constant. At any moment an Airman could receive orders or be assigned a new position. How they deal with stress is extremely important.
Positive thinking is the ability to find the positives in any situation. Few people wake up every morning in a good mood. It takes time and effort to stay positive.
Through these four principles, Burke urges Airmen to observe and evaluate their ABCs: activating event, beliefs and consequences.
“It’s about slowing down and analyzing the consequences of your actions,” Burke said. “Is how you’re acting getting you where you want to go, or is it interfering with your performance, values, goals or your relationships? If so, you might need to look at your playbook and pick a new play. You need to try something else to get a different result.”
Mental stability also significantly impacts one’s success and ability to cope in the military.
This not only applies to the “stressors and challenges” associated with the Air Force mission, but also the unique impacts it can have on other aspects of Airmen’s lives, said Tech. Sgt. Rouven Sefcik, the 436th Medical Operations Squadron mental health flight chief.
“When a person deploys, it puts a lot of stress on the whole family,” Sefcik said. “You might be the one deploying, but the rest of the family needs to pick up the slack. When you get back, things may be different. You might not feel at home anymore. Somebody else may have the job you used to do. It’s easy to feel lost, and it’s hard to find your way back.”
Sefcik said the process of re-assimilation often brings people to their ‘rock-bottom,’ which can be a good place to be if it urges a person to reach out for help. Mental health, Military Family Life Counselors and Military One Source are all agencies or people that can provide mental healthcare.
Perhaps one of the most important factors of mental health is simply identifying the feelings, thoughts and emotions an individual is experiencing, Sefcik said.
“A lot of times we feel a certain way but we can’t explain exactly what we’re experiencing,” Sefcik said. “If you don’t know what it’s called that you’re experiencing, how do you care for it? Knowing is the key to resilience. Once you realize you aren’t alone, and you aren’t the only one feeling how you feel, you can start building that resilience.”
Resilience is the ultimate goal of CAF, and each domain lends to the overall resilience of an individual, said Master Sgt. Kevin Burke, the 436th Airlift Wing CAF and Resilience Program manager.
“You’re going to fail,” Burke said. “What separates resilient people from the rest is how they react when they fail. Some people give up and never try again. Other people learn a lesson and try a different way. When they hit a wall, they try to find a way around the wall, over it or under it. There’s a value in failure. I’ve heard it said: ‘knowledge comes from experience, and experience comes from failure.’ You’ve got to put yourself out there. When I do, I realize I could fail, or I could succeed, but either way, I’m going to grow.”
Burke said he set out on a life journey to improve himself years ago. He didn’t realize at the time that he was developing resilience through the principles of CAF, but now he sees how it is all in line with what he teaches now.
“I thrive now,” Burke said. “I don’t exist, I thrive. Anyone can get there. You don’t have to be who you are now. You can work on it, but you have to accept it and work at it. When I look back at myself ten years ago, I see a completely different person. I don’t do the same things. I don’t treat people the same way. I have different facial expressions. I’ve learned and fallen in love with learning. In ten years, when you look back, will you see a difference?”
More information about the four domains of Comprehensive Airman Fitness can be found on the Air Force Portal or through your unit’s master resilience trainer.