WESTFIELD, Mass. – Michelle Pennington, director of psychological health at the Massachusetts Air National Guard's 104th Fighter Wing, has been involved in social work since she was a child.
Her mother was a frequent volunteer and Pennington would often accompany her to food pantries and nursing homes to help.
Those childhood experiences, along with knowing friends and family who have had challenges and struggles, have helped normalize the topic of mental health for Pennington.
She now works to promote mental health awareness for members of the 104 FW and their families, and ultimately improve their quality of life.
“It is part of your whole being, and it is a piece of yourself,” said Pennington. “Everybody should have a good quality of life and find happiness, whatever that means for themselves, and feel connected to others and have a sense of purpose in what they do, whatever it is.”
Pennington said one of the first steps to promoting mental health awareness is normalizing it as a topic. If somebody is feeling mentally overloaded, she suggests addressing that instead of feeling as if you need to work through it alone.
She said people can make time for themselves to do enjoyable things, find a hobby, take deep breaths on a walk, and spend time connecting with other people to help build up their mental fortitude. She compared it to an athlete receiving a massage after a hard workout.
“It’s the same exact thing,” said Pennington. “If people can start to work those things into their routine, just like everything else for their physical bodies is worked into their routine, like brushing your teeth, taking a shower, or going to the gym, it goes a long way to building resilience.”
Airmen can utilize a number of resources at the 104 FW.
“You have the chaplains, Airmen and Family Readiness, our new Sexual Assault Response Coordinator, and everybody has knowledge,” said Pennington. “Even if you aren’t having a mental health problem, but you want to find out about community resources or events and ways to connect with people, any one of us can look into those things for you.”
The director of psychological health said seeing a counselor for things like marital problems, financial issues or grieving after a loss are things that will not impact your military career.
“Those are life experiences that everyone goes through,” said Pennington. “If you are going through a difficult time and don’t address it, it can turn into something bigger that may affect your work performance, which then is a problem.”
Many people have a hard time asking for help, and she realizes that many military members hold themselves to a higher standard and feel as if they need to handle any mental health issues all on their own, all of the time, she said.
She said she hopes to break down the barrier that exists when it comes to people seeking help and wants people to know it is normal to go through hard times.
“Life sends us curveballs all the time,” said Pennington. “It’s not anything to try and squash or be ashamed of. It’s part of life.”