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NEWS | Feb. 6, 2024

Mental Health: Overcoming stigma surrounding these challenges begins with early identification, addressing before escalation

By Maj. Gen. Rich Neely, the Adjutant General, Illinois National Guard

A few weeks ago, I issued a memorandum to the Service Members and civilian employees of the Illinois National Guard regarding mental health. The purpose of this memorandum was to communicate some of the actions the U.S. Department of Defense is taking to reduce the stigma associated with mental health challenges and to inform our Soldiers, Airmen, civilian employees and their families about some of these changes.

The stigma surrounding mental health challenges is a societal issue, but it is one that directly effects military readiness. Everyone at some point in their lifetime struggles with mental health challenges – it is part of being human. Whether it is depression, anxiety, substance abuse, trauma, compulsion, relationship difficulties, or many other challenges; we all know someone who has needed professional help. Many of us have needed that help ourselves.

Our goal is to overcome or manage those challenges so we can effectively protect our state and nation. The Department of Defense strategy and the basis for our Integrated Prevention Program is to prevent harmful behaviors from occurring in the first place. The best way to do that is by identifying the problem early and addressing it before it escalates.

Caring for our Airmen and Soldiers is a top priority because it is the right thing to do AND because it directly impacts our ability to accomplish our state and federal missions. It boils down to readiness and unit integrity. Mental health is just as important as staying physically fit or treating an injury. As an organization, we must do more to end the stigma against seeking mental health care. We must ensure we enable individuals to seek counsel, community, and connection within our formations.

The Soldiers and Airmen have shown incredible resilience throughout our history. In the last two decades alone, we’ve faced terrorism and war, while also responding to domestic emergencies here in Illinois and throughout the United States.

Being in the military is not easy. We are in a serious business, and we are committed to going where others will not. As U.S. Senator Tammy Duckworth, an Illinois National Guard retiree, said during the 34th Division Sustainment Brigade’s deployment ceremony, “for those who serve in uniform, freedom has the flavor that the protected shall never taste.” We know the price of freedom like no others.

We know the commitment it takes and the unique stressors that face those in uniform and their families. We need to take care of each other. Leaders need to encourage Soldiers and Airmen to seek help when they need it. It is a sign of strength and resilience.

We also need to be thoughtful and empathetic in our day-to-day interactions. Words have meaning. Be kind in the words you choose to use. Try to use language that does not stigmatize mental health challenges and health seeking behaviors.  Consistent with Deputy Secretary of Defense’s "Review of Policies to Eliminate Stigmatizing Language Related to Mental Health," published in November 2022, our organization will continue to make strides in improving how we discuss mental health and help seeking behaviors.

My intent is not to have leaders become vocabulary police. I’m fully aware that Soldiers and Airmen sometimes have their own tough and tumble language that can be more caring, understanding, and authentic in the context of the relationship than “correct” language would be. However, I do expect all written correspondence to eliminate stigmatizing language and for leaders to help educate others on why certain terms and words can be stigmatizing.

It is also important for leaders to help give accurate information to our Service Members and their families. DoDI 5200.02, "DoD Personnel Security Program," states that seeking professional care for mental health concerns will not jeopardize your security clearance. Seeking professional help with a mental health concern is viewed as a positive indication that the security clearance holder recognizes a potential challenge may exist and is taking steps towards addressing the concern.

Most mental health treatment does not need to be reported to your security management office. Only limited, very specific circumstances require reporting. These are identified in Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence and Security memorandum, "Implementation of Security Executive Agent Directive 3, Reporting Requirements for Personnel with Access to Classified Information or Who Hold a Sensitive Position," published in November 2022.

Any questioning by your security manager or negative impact on your eligibility or access because of mental health treatment outside of these specific reporting requirements need to be reported to the Illinois National Guard’s Inspector General.

The Brandon Act was signed into law by President Joe Biden on December 27, 2021, as part of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2022.  The law, named after Petty Officer 3rd Class Brandon Caserta who died by suicide in 2018, states that service members can initiate a referral process for mental health evaluation through their commanding officer or supervisor who is in a grade of E-6 and above on any basis, at any time, and in any environment. Services members are not required to provide a reason or a basis for the request. The Illinois Air and Army National Guard will fully implement this program once guidance is received from their respective service component headquarters.

There are also many questions that have been raised as to seeking mental health treatment and how it relates to the ability to deploy. There are ever-changing circumstances and medical capabilities in each theater, so each situation involving mental health and the ability to deploy is unique. However, generally, if an individual has demonstrated stability for at least three months, medications have been unchanged for at least three months, and are also available while deployed, then in most cases involving mental health an individual may deploy.

Leaders must encourage Soldiers, Airmen, and DOD Civilians to seek help for mental health challenges and guide them to the appropriate resources. The well-being of our force and the success of the Illinois National Guard and our national security depend on it.