Busting the myth: Seeking help won’t end your career

Written by  //  August 26, 2011  //  Feature Stories, News

ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. (August 26, 2011) – Call it a change in thinking, a shift in culture or the effects of years of studies; the military is now stressing the importance of mental health and making it a priority throughout the force. Ongoing stressors on our Soldiers, Airmen, Sailors and Marines have brought to the forefront the importance of taking care of service members’ mental ailments in addition to physical injuries.

“I think nationwide we’re experiencing a tremendous amount of stress due to the long-term deployment engagement of the overall military,” said Michael McFarland, the Director of Psychological Health for the Florida National Guard. “The optempo for our men and women in the Guard is tremendous and that creates a lot of stress.”

The leadership of the Florida National Guard wants you to know that your mental health is important and seeking help isn’t a sign of weakness and won’t end your career as a Soldier or Airman.

“We’ve chosen this occupation,” said Command Sgt. Maj. Michael Hosford, the state command sergeant major. “It’s not the easiest occupation in the world and there are a lot of stressors out there. If you can’t look past a temporary adversity to seeing the light for tomorrow, then we need to get you the tools to help you get there.”

What was once a source of stigma and shame for Soldiers – seeking help for mental health-related issues – is slowly becoming not only an acceptable course of action, but a necessary and important step for a Soldier or Airman’s career progression and upward mobility.

“It’s important to seek help because behavioral health issues generally just don’t go away,” said McFarland. “Once they begin to emerge – once there begins to be that struggle – you’re going to need some support.”

According to McFarland, the earlier you can make an intervention when it comes to behavioral health, the easier it is for that intervention and the more likely it is for things to be addressed in a very successful way.

“If we let things go too long, then the Soldier may be compromised for an extended period of time,” said McFarland. “The way to minimize that is the first time that you have a sense that things are not going well, reach out and get help and generally it can be taken care of fairly quickly.”

McFarland likens reaching out and asking for help to skill development. Just as no Soldier develops the ability to be battle ready on his own, the same is true when it comes to behavioral health. Different methods of coping and handling difficult situations can and should be learned and developed by the Soldier.

Seeking treatment for a mental health condition cannot alone be a reason to discharge a Soldier or Airmen or prevent a Soldier or Airmen from being promoted. In fact, being discriminated against for having a medical condition is illegal. However, failure to get treatment for a mental health condition resulting in severe misconduct can have negative impacts on a Soldier’s career.

“It’s no different than a broken limb or a pinched nerve or any other illness that would affect the body,” said Hosford. “This one just affects the mind. So we get the Soldier the professional help that they need and we bring them right back and get them back in our formations.”

Even family members shouldn’t be afraid to contact a Guardsman’s chain of command or McFarland himself to report any unusual behavior. Often families are the first to spot potential problems in their service member.

“Overall, I think the threat of negative impact for career development is pretty minimal nowadays,” said McFarland. “I can think of so many cases I’ve been involved in where it’s not been a career breaker for anyone. In fact, because of the confidentiality that the Director of Psychological Health affords, many times, addressing the issues was totally outside of the radar of anyone and so there was no opportunity for it to have a negative career impact.”

Hosford feels that keeping Soldiers and Airmen who are receiving mental health treatment in the Guard will reduce the stigma associated with mental health illness and treatment.

“When people see that people aren’t thrown out of the system – that they did get help and that they were brought back in – you take that stigmatism out of there,” said Hosford.

Hosford would like for Soldiers and Airmen to not ever consider suicide as an option to problems.

“We are all of us – myself included – going to have major things happen to use in our lives and not all of them are going to be good,” said Hosford. “But how we deal with those bad things that happen to us says a lot about who we are. Sometimes the adversity is just bigger than we can handle by ourselves.”

“Before you consider suicide, understand that if you’re having issues, raise your hand,” continued Hosford. “We’re not going to stigmatize you. We’re going to get you fixed and bring you back.”

Michael McFarland, the Director of Psychological Health for the Florida National Guard can be reached at (904) 823-0308. In an emergency, Soldiers, friends or family members can contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK or dial 9-1-1.