CHEYENNE – It’s one of the most difficult times of the year for members of the United States military, be they active duty or veterans.
The national conversation around mental health has grown substantially over the past five years, and the narrative has certainly translated over to the service members stationed across the county.
Still, current and former enlisted military members remain a population particularly at risk for elevated instances of mental struggle come holiday season.
In Cheyenne, the pains of depression, anxiety and severe isolated loneliness fall upon the airmen at F.E. Warren Air Force Base who, for financial reasons or inability to take leave, are unable to visit family far away.
Lauren Northrup, community engagement and partnership coordinator for suicide prevention at the Cheyenne Veterans Affairs Medical Center, is consistently dealing with the effects of mental health struggles in the military. She also works in offices located in Colorado and southwest Nebraska.
Regardless of where she’s working or who she’s working with, Northrup is explicitly tasked with mitigating suicide among the military.
“One of the largest things we’re seeing is a lot of social isolation,” Northrup said in a phone interview with the Wyoming Tribune Eagle. “There’s a staggering increase where military members, veterans and civilians alike are just more socially isolated than they’ve ever been before.”
Many possible causes, solutions
Social isolation is not a new struggle for the populous, but the COVID-19 pandemic forced people to isolate unlike ever before. It was enough of a change that, for nearly two years, it became a standard way of life. Although pandemic restrictions have almost completely lifted, isolated behaviors remain active in many of those dealing with depression.
Factor in the fact that many enlisted military members are young, and their first station is often the farthest they’ve been away from family in their lifetime. Without support or an inclination to practice the holiday traditions they grew up with, their feelings of loneliness are often intensified and the repercussions elevated.
There is also the struggle of seasonal affective disorder (SAD), an onset of depression dictated by the arrival of winter months. While SAD can occur anywhere in the world, there’s an understandable risk here in Cheyenne, where the sun is up for just nine hours a day, temperatures are regularly below freezing, and 40-60 mph winds bring a harsh chill.
It’s no secret that Cheyenne lacks enough mental health care providers, so when Northrup and the VA hospital encounter situations, one of their main conversations with clients focuses on practical solutions.
“If there’s no pending suicidal thoughts or ideation, (it’s about finding) self-awareness,” Northrup said. “Like working to identify what their social system was and what their social system is now. Really looking at what they have available to them right now that is similar to before, but maybe not perfect.”
One large-scale example would be the yearly food drive hosted by Cheyenne Community Aim Foundation, where founder Glen Chavez takes donations of Thanksgiving food to distribute to active-duty military so they can continue celebrating holiday traditions with one another.
Adopt an Airman is a similar year-round program that pairs local volunteer families with a service member for regular events and activities. During the holiday season, this could be exchanging gifts, decorating a tree or participating in a holiday meal.
But Northrup said that she encourages active-duty military to pursue these kinds of traditions whether it’s a part of a program or not. In short, she’s doing a bit of “social prescribing” to make sure that airmen aren’t socially isolating, and that they’re continuing to make connections during this time of year.
The same goes for the families of active-duty military who are experiencing similar feelings, especially spouses.
“It’s really focusing on what is possible, and also looking at it as temporary problem,” she said. “Thinking, ‘We will not always be away from (family). We will not always be alone for the holidays.’
“This is a temporary, so, what might be a temporary solution here to help you feel (better)?”
Though many depressive symptoms can arise during the holiday season, Northrup also emphasized the importance of getting help now, rather than attempting to “get through it.”
Not always temporary
While finding temporary solutions for the holidays is important, it’s a mistake to believe that negative mental health might be only temporary, as well.
Northrup does see a spike in requests for counseling around Thanksgiving. However, what often ends up happening is military members persevere through winter months because they are hopeful their condition will improve come spring.
“We find a spike in completed suicides sometime around February and March,” Northrup said. “A lot of this could could be speculated to the loss of hope. I encourage people, if they’re thinking that way, to also still reach out for health care. How depression is treated now is very different than how it has been treated in the past.”
Ultimately, mental health care among active-duty and military veterans is needed year-round. Northrup doesn’t see a particular time of year when more members of the military are suddenly seeking help, though there is a higher concentration around holidays and personal anniversaries.
Thankfully, the conversation around mental health has also increased in the military, and as a result, increased at Cheyenne’s own F.E. Warren Air Force Base.
On Friday, multiple airmen stationed at F.E. Warren spoke with the WTE on a conference call covering what services are offered on base.
Among them was Jody Clark, flight chief of the Airmen and Family Readiness Center. In July, the A&FRC developed several agencies that were tasked with being integrated into squadrons with the goal of increasing resiliency and quality of life for airmen. Implementing the program into squadrons makes it easier for airmen to receive their services.
The center offers life counseling, marriage counseling, financial counseling and stress management services, as well as sexual assault services. Clark said the program has been discussing holiday stressors with units to ensure that there’s “no consequences to (their) choices.”
Outside of the center, there has also been an emphasis on annual suicide prevention training among leadership, where supervisors are trained to recognize suicidal ideations among their troops. If certain behaviors cause alarm, it allows for earlier intervention and monitoring of how airmen are feeling and the forming of possible solutions.
The point to emphasize is that there is a variety of resources available to airman that help avoid any potential damage to their military career. As with any profession involving the handling of firearms or operation of heavy machinery, certain mental illnesses can disqualify a person from employment.
“While there’s still those rules when it comes to seeking direct care or medications for mental health, I think the point that we’re getting at is there’s so many other ways for airmen to seek help,” Maj. Victoria Hight, from F.E. Warren Public Affairs, said. “Those are offered because if that makes (them) more comfortable, then those services are available to (them).”
There’s a difference between clinical mental health care and an airman receiving a listening ear. One of the most common ways of working through stress, should an airman seek help, is through a chaplain.
Chaplains can help
Deputy Wing Chaplain Maj. Jessica Prophitt has walked many airmen through difficult situations over her eight years on active duty, and said that airmen in crisis often just need someone to talk them through the issues they’re facing.
Chaplains have always provided confidential counseling, but there’s still some stigma around mental health that they’re trying to combat. Whether they’re experiencing a crisis or not, regardless the time of year, airmen are encouraged to speak with a chaplain in an initial conversation to determine the best course of action.
Prophitt said that there has been a push from leadership to discuss holiday plans.
“I’ve walked a number of airmen through difficult life situations,” Profiitt said. “When they first walked into my office, they were in crisis mode, but to be able to just talk through the situation and to know that they weren’t having to face it alone gave them what they needed to get through that period.
“I know that we experience that everyday within the chaplain corps.”