Stopping problems before they start: DoD aims for more proactive mental health care

The Defense Department wants to expand its budget for mental health care, and the services are starting new programs to prevent harmful behavior.

With a push from the Defense Department to expand mental health services, including suicide and sexual assault prevention, the Navy recently released its mental health playbook. The initiative is among several from the services aimed at proactively treating mental health issues and removing the stigma involved with seeking care.

The manual offers a guide to how communication about mental health should work between naval personnel up and down the chain of command. The Navy wants the manual to not only help prevent mental health problems, but create an environment more welcoming to discussion of those problems.

“Our mental health playbook supports command leaders in minimizing mental health issues, but when they do occur, to empower them with the resources to connect sailors with appropriate mental health care at the right level at the right time,” Vice Adm. Richard Cheeseman, the Navy’s top personnel official, told the House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday.

The playbook supports a DoD effort to put prevention at the forefront of mental health issues, particularly as it relates to suicides. It offers specific resources on where to go and who to talk to about mental health, and offers leaders ways to look for signs of a problem. It also includes a flow chart and contact information for specific resources.

“Navy-wide, we must become comfortable with the idea of preventative maintenance for our people. Most of us are absolutely comfortable with the concept of preventative maintenance for our equipment and machines. Today, it is equally if not more important to apply this term to our people,” officials said in an update to the playbook added March 23.

The push to expand mental health care across the services comes after several years of studies and reports showing increasing levels of reported suicides and sexual assault within the military. Surveys show those issues have contributed to difficulties in recruiting new service members.

The playbook came out shortly after the DoD’s Independent Review Commission on Sexual Assault in the Military released 82 recommendations. Implementing those recommendations provided part of the basis for DoD’s request of $637 million in funding for sexual assault prevention in the 2024 budget request.

At the Association of the United States Army (AUSA’s) Global Force Symposium last week in Huntsville, Alabama, Army Training and Doctrine Command’s Lt. Gen. Maria Gervais responded to a question about how much recruiting has been hurt by reports of harmful behavior within the military.

“Harmful behaviors are very damaging to us as an Army, it doesn’t represent who we are or what we stand for. Moms and dads entrust their sons and daughters to us, they expect them to come into the Army, to be able to gain a skill and to also be taken care of, and not face a threat of harmful behavior,” Gervais said.

Gervais said Army Secretary Christine Wormuth recently signed an integrated prevention strategy focused on training Army leaders to set a climate within their commands that helps prevent sexual assault. She said the Army now starts working on behavior issues during basic training. In a program that started during the COVID quarantine, soldiers learn about preventing sexual assault during the first two weeks of basic combat training. Gervais said she thinks it is reducing incidents of sexual harassment and assault.

“One of the things I’m really excited about is the prevention strategy, because it will allow us to start focusing on prevention versus the responsive piece, which we have to do. But I think as we take this, we can institutionalize inside our training base, inside our leader development programs, or professional military education, and stitch it throughout every echelon,” Gervais said.


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