The Department of Defense (DoD) has initiated a push for more proactive mental health care in the U.S. Navy, aimed at preventing mental health issues from occurring and removing any stigma attached to seeking care. This push is in line with wider attempts by the DoD to expand mental health services across all branches of the military and to prevent suicides and cases of sexual assault. The Navy recently released its mental health playbook, offering guidance on how communication regarding mental health should be conducted between naval personnel throughout the chain of command.
The manual was developed with the intention of not only preventing mental health problems from occurring but also creating a more welcoming environment for discussion of mental health. According to Vice Adm. Richard Cheeseman, the Navy’s top personnel official, the playbook aims to “minimize mental health issues” and to provide command leaders with the resources required to “connect sailors with appropriate mental health care at the right level and at the right time”.
The playbook also seeks to put prevention at the forefront of mental health issues, particularly in preventing suicides. It provides specific resources detailing where to go and who to talk to about mental health, and leaders are instructed on identifying signs of a problem among their personnel. The manual emphasizes the need for preventative maintenance for people, arguing that it is equally important to apply the term to people as it is to equipment and machines.
The navy’s mental health playbook follows years of studies and reports identifying increasing levels of suicides and sexual assault cases in the military, which in turn have contributed to difficulties in recruiting new service members. In line with the playbook, the DoD’s Independent Review Commission on Sexual Assault has released 82 recommendations aimed at preventing sexual assault in the military. Implementing those recommendations provided part of the basis for DoD’s $637 million funding request for sexual assault prevention in the 2024 budget.
The army, too, has sought to implement preventative measures for mental health issues and sexual assault through training Army leaders to establish a climate that discourages harmful behaviours. Training in preventing sexual assault is now incorporated into basic combat training, and there is a focus on institutionalizing the prevention strategy in leader development programs and professional military education.
Lt. Gen. Maria Gervais of Army Training and Doctrine Command has said that harmful behaviours are “very damaging” to the army’s recruitment efforts, and that parents entrusting their children to the army expect that they will be taken care of and not subjected to harmful behaviours. As such, the army’s prevention strategy represents a significant shift towards preventing harmful behaviours, rather than simply responding to them when they occur.
In conclusion, the development of the navy’s mental health playbook and the implementation of a prevention strategy in the army signal a wider shift towards more proactive mental health care in the military. By identifying and preventing mental health issues and harmful behaviours before they occur, the DoD aims to create a safer and more supportive environment for its personnel and to reduce difficulties in recruitment.
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