CAMP BONDSTEEL, Kosovo – Each year in May, the United States emphasizes the importance of mental health care and awareness during Mental Health Awareness Month. This year, Kosovo Force’s Regional Command-East behavioral health team discussed the importance of recognizing mental health, dedicating a month to awareness and what all Soldiers can do to support behavioral health efforts across the military.
The RC-East’s behavioral health team is a two-Soldier team assigned to Task Force Medical, 547th Medical Company (Area Support), 62nd Medical Brigade. Capt. SarahLouise Perez, the unit’s behavioral health officer, and Spc. Kimberly Caro, a behavioral health technician, are passionate about the impact of Mental Health Awareness Month, first recognized in 1949, and have contributed to the understanding, openness, treatment and prevention of mental health issues.
“Mental Health Awareness Month is something that is very important because I think a lot of times, especially in the military, there’s a stigma,” Perez said. “It’s important to acknowledge that mental health is not the same as mental illness. If you have poor mental health, it could lead to having a mental illness, but mental health is not necessarily something negative to look at.”
Perez’s duties as the brigade’s behavior health officer include acting as the advisor to all commanders on the overall mental health of their Soldiers through the analysis of trends seen among the units while providing guidance on ways to mitigate potential issues. U.S. Army behavior health officers can be either clinical psychologists or clinical social workers. As a clinical social worker, Perez is able to provide personalized counseling for Soldiers throughout her organization.
According to Perez, the month-long observance serves as an opportunity for organizations, such as the military, to dedicate time and resources to acknowledging the stigma behind seeking mental health support and finding ways to combat stigmas by supporting all persons when pursuing behavioral health care.
“You have to be mentally sound in order to be that exemplary Soldier, Airman, Marine, or Sailor,” she said. “I could be the strongest person in the world but if my mind’s not right, then I’m not going to be able to do my mission well. The importance we place on the physical aspect of the military needs to translate over to the psychological aspects of it.”
Caro, the unit’s behavioral health noncommissioned officer, also reflected on the importance of organizations prioritizing mental health just as much as physical health.
She shared, “I think that there is a lot of negative stigma that comes with behavioral health. People are scared or intimidated to come in, but really, it’s just like anything else. If your leg hurts, you go see a physical therapist; if your tooth hurts, you go see a dentist. I think we need to bring more awareness to how important mental health is and how big of an asset it is to have a good (behavioral health) team.”
As a behavioral health NCO, Caro supports the behavioral health team and unit by conducting initial assessments of Soldiers and working with Perez on determining potential follow-on care. While deployed, she spearheads the behavioral health team’s training efforts on different coping skills for Soldiers. She believes it’s critical for Soldiers to find healthy coping skills, such as exercising, journaling, joining sports teams or finding fellow Soldiers with similar interests, in order to support mental health while separated from loved ones.
The Military Health System’s theme of this year’s mental health awareness month was “burnout.” Burnout is the feeling of exhaustion caused by excessive or prolonged emotional, physical or mental stress. For deployed Soldiers, the feeling of burnout can be extremely prevalent due to the demanding tasks and work at hand, all while being separated from one’s support system.
The RC-E behavioral health team explained how critical the feeling of burnout could impact a unit.
“It can be easy to have Soldiers who feel overwhelmed with work while (deployed) and managing our lives back home,” Caro stated. “But it’s important to take a step back. Take a deep breath and try to break things down, as best as possible; not everything has to get done all once.”
Perez echoed the same sentiments by adding that it is common to feel this kind of stress, but it is important to recognize these feelings, not let them become overwhelming, and never feel ashamed to reach out for help.
It can be a scary feeling for Soldiers to seek behavioral health help. Still, it’s essential for a unit’s leadership to normalize promoting mental health and seeking support when needed.
“It’s normal,” Perez explained. “We all have problems and because we are Soldiers, Airmen, Marines, Sailors, we are expected to hold ourselves to a higher standard than the civilian population; but at the same time, we’re only human and we experience things. We’re not superhuman.”