STUTTGART, Germany — When service members are wounded in combat, medical assistance is readily available to set broken bones, perform emergency surgeries and stitch up open wounds.
While we freely accept these types of medical assistance, some service members, when dealing with emotional and mental problems, choose to not seek support. Each branch of service offers behavioral health assistance, but due to the negative stigma associated with accessing these types of services, some in the community choose to suffer in silence.
The United States European Command leadership took steps, after hearing concerns at the 2009 Quality of Life Conference in Garmisch, Germany, to help service members get care when they need it. The EUCOM Bill of Rights for Behavior Health Care, the outcome of the conference and the first of its kind, was developed to combat the stigma associated with mental health care.
"With the Bill of Rights for Behavioral Health Care, we want to create a theater-wide discussion on accessing behavioral and mental health care counseling and support," said Wayne Boswell, EUCOM Quality of Life Chief. Boswell acknowledges that stigma is alive in our society and a part of our military community but said, "the goal is by creating this theater-wide discussion it will help to de-stigmatize accessing these types of services." Support from senior leadership for the bill of rights is evident by the signatures outlined on the document. Adm. James Stavridis, EUCOM Commander, and each of the service component commanders signed the document to show their support.
"We have to remove the fear that seeking mental health assistance will affect their ability to get a security clearance, adversely affect their career and their ability to earn a living to support themselves and their families," said Navy Fleet Master Chief Roy Maddocks, EUCOM Senior Enlisted Advisor.
The bill of rights addresses those concerns with security clearances and several others. "Read it. Understand it. Talk with your fellow service members about it and encourage each other to take advantage of the resources available, especially if you find a need," Maddocks said. This document outlines several services that are provided by behavioral health specialists. The services include mental and psychological health, social workers, substance abuse programs, childhood early intervention services, marriage and family counseling and Chaplain Services.
"The Bill of Rights for Behavior Health Care does a couple of things. It offers hope and strength and acknowledges that we are not robots. We are breakable. We are human beings who have a need for renewal and restoration at whatever level or rank - be it civilian or military," said EUCOM Chaplain Air Force Col. Brian Van Sickle.
Chaplains bring a unique gift to the Bill of Rights - complete confidentiality. Chaplains are always available and will not reveal information discussed during counseling sessions to anyone, and no records are kept. "It's descriptive in that it formalizes leaders concerns for the mental and spiritual health for their service members," Van Sickle said. Leaders are acknowledging that physiological and spiritual health is a military readiness issue.
"Leaders at the highest level are saying, 'Get care to your service members … oh and by the way, here is how they go get it,'" Van Sickle said. "This is what makes the bill of rights prescriptive, because it not only tells service members [that] these services are out there for you, it tells you how to get it," he said. As warriors, it is difficult to admit the need to seek mental health assistance because of the cultural environment that surrounds being in the military. The idea of being seen as weak or losing the respect of fellow service members for seeking help is is not accepted by some.
"What every service member needs to realize is just because you need help doesn't mean it's forever. You can get over it and you can become fully functional again," said Air Force Col. Dave Schall, EUCOM Command Surgeon. "The key is early intervention. Don't wait until it becomes a big problem." "If you take care of problems when they are small, when they first appear, they don't blow up into enormous problems that could lead to divorce, substance abuse problems or suicide," Schall said. "The goal is to return everyone to their normal functions … to their normal lives and relationships."
"We have seen this far too often. A service member is filling out a questionnaire and his wife is sitting alongside him and stops him on almost every question and says 'no, wait you have that [health problem].' Ultimately, she was able to convince her husband to make an appointment with mental health or chaplain," Schall said.
"If service members continue to answer negative on the questionnaires, we cannot help those who need our help," Schall said. "By reading and understanding their rights outlined in the Bill of Rights for Behavior Health Care, the hope is service members will come forward, without help and without fear, and ask for help." To help combat the negative stigma with mental health care, Schall's office and the military medical community are also trying to normalize access by putting mental health specialist in family health clinics.
"It should be the same as going to the family health clinic for an appointment for asthma than going in for an appointment to see a mental health specialist. No separation and no treating anyone differently. You are sitting in the clinic for family practice … not psychiatry," Schall said. The EUCOM Bill of Rights for Behavioral Health Care is a tool that EUCOM leaderships hopes will empower other leaders to be more aware when members of the EUCOM community are struggling and be supportive. The document is posted in health care facilities, chapels, family care centers and other locations on installations throughout EUCOM’s area of responsibility.