Combating the Enemy Within: Building Trust, Leading Change and Defeating the Mental Health Stigma
Air War College Air University Maxwell AFB United States
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In the mid-1990s, the Air Force experienced a spike in suicides. This occurrence resulted after a period of massive force reductions across the Department of Defense DoD. The DoD has signaled that all Services will experience a significant manpower reduction once again. As such, Airmen, Sailors, Soldiers, and Marines will inherit and in some instances, internalize the associated stress that accompanies such action. These force reductions come against a backdrop of government-wide budgetary uncertainty, fiscal constraints, furlough activity, more than a decade of continuous war, the likelihood of expanded duties, the need to lower manpower to congressionally defined limits, and a U.S. economy in decline. One can argue the environment is harsher today than what was faced in the 1990s. Since 2001, suicide rates in the Air Force and across DoD have trended upward. Today, military suicide is a national crisis, with one veteran committing suicide every 80 minutes. Studies reflect concern by Airmen over a perceived stigma associated with seeking mental health treatment. Potential force reductions and career uncertainty can deter Airmen from seeking mental health services. Air Force behavioral health advocacy, communications and educational campaigns implemented by senior leadership have not gained the necessary trust and confidence of Airmen to lessen the stigma associated with mental health services. In order to establish trust and reduce stigma, Air Force practices require review, while at the same time, lessons should be garnered from other organizations and new approaches sought. Otherwise, Airmen will continue to resist treatment, resulting in lives lost. The Air Force requires a successful battle plan to defeat this enemy within. Failure is not an option.