Breaking the silence on mental illness

By Spc. Dakota Vanidestine | 103rd Sustainment Command (Expeditionary) | Dec. 3, 2019

CAMP ARIFJAN, Kuwait —

Stress affects us all – from running late to work, to meet deadlines, to getting injured.

In a deployed environment, stressful situations are exacerbated. Soldiers face operational stressors, dangerous work conditions, and sometimes even witness the deaths of others.

Lt. Col. Richard Dreize, Capt. Erica Fitzgerald, Capt. Joshua Sharp, Sgt. Johan Tocre, and Sgt. Cory Nottingham of the 1972nd Combat and Operational Stress Control (COSC) - Medical Detachment addressed this topic during a Suicide and Behavioral Health Awareness Symposium at Camp Arifjan, Kuwait, Nov. 25, 2019.

One aspect of mental illness they addressed during the symposium was the result of too much stress.

“Too much stress can lead to anxiety, headaches, memory and concentration problems, trouble sleeping, and even weight gain,” Tocre said. “Stress can be a good thing, it helps us stay sharp and alert – but too much stress becomes an issue.”

Stress can be either beneficial or detrimental – each having different effects.

“Good stress will motivate you and will get you ready to perform. This is the natural way your body responds to change and gets you ready to perform,” Tocre said. “However, chronic stress can begin to affect a person both mentally and physiologically.”

Under chronic stress, the stress hormone cortisol is constantly being secreted.

“The hormone cortisol controls a person’s mood, motivation, and fuels the body’s fight or flight response,” Tocre said. “When people are chronically stressed, their bodies are constantly in fight or flight mode – leading to weakened immune systems, trouble sleeping, and often weight gain.”

It is important for leaders to recognize these changes in their Soldiers.

“Early recognition of the signs and symptoms of stress can keep both the individual Soldier and the unit mission capable,” Nottingham said. “As a leader, you need to take care of yourself as well – you are useless as a leader if you are a stress casualty yourself.”

There are several common strategies that a person can use to alleviate stress.

“Aroma therapy, journaling, and thought stoppers are a few methods that are commonly used to reduce stress,” Nottingham said. “Nutrition is also key – limit caffeine and, most importantly, never skip meals!”

Chronic stress is often a precursor of mental illness and should be addressed as soon as possible.

”We need to maintain an open dialogue about the stressors and struggles that push service members and veterans to the point of taking their own lives,” Fitzgerald said. We need to reduce the stigma associated with talking about behavioral health and seeking treatment. This is literally a life or death matter.”

Events such as this are important for getting the conversation going about mental illness and reducing the stigma associated with it, as well, she said.

“We simply must put an end to this stigma,” Lt. Col. Renn Polk, commander, 1972nd COSC - Medical Detachment, said. “We must never view reaching out for help as a sign of weakness – as it is, in fact, a sign of tremendous strength.”

Leadership, in any organization, are at the forefront of changing the way Soldiers view and talk about mental illness.

”Leaders must model self-care and promote behavioral health as a normative and helpful practice,” Polk said. “Nothing less is acceptable.”

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