NIAMEY, Niger – Indiana National Guard medical Soldiers and Airmen traveled to Niger in West Africa in September to strategize with the Niger Armed Forces to bolster its medical programs.
Capt. Jennifer Nevers, a behavioral health officer with the Indiana National Guard’s 738th Medical Company Area Support, hit the tarmac running to help improve the mental health of Nigerien soldiers and veterans.
The Indiana National Guard and Niger have been partners under the National Guard's State Partnership Program since 2017. SPP links a unique component of the Department of Defense - a state's National Guard - with the armed forces or equivalent of a partner country in a cooperative, mutually beneficial relationship.
In the past 20 years, the U.S. Army has drastically changed its mental health capabilities and approach.
Since 9/11, according to a research paper written by Thomas Howard Suitt III from Boston University, an estimated 30,177 active-duty personnel and veterans of the post 9/11 wars have died by suicide, significantly more than the 7,075 service members killed in post-9/11 war operations.
“This rate is likely a conservative one because, unlike earlier reports, Veteran Affairs only counts veterans who were federally activated, leaving out Reservists and National Guardsmen who were not federally activated,” Suitt wrote. “The growing crisis is especially pressing because veterans of post-9/11 conflicts are disproportionately dying by suicide compared to previous military service eras.”
That’s why mental health professionals like Nevers raised their hands and volunteered for service.
For five years prior to her commission, Nevers was already heavily involved in veterans’ health as a licensed clinical social worker for the VA.
“I had a lot of clinical experience coming in, and when I commissioned, I had worked with military personnel and veterans for quite a while,” Nevers said. “During that time, I really saw a need to not wait until they get out of the military to help and provide services to them. I wanted to provide that mental support earlier on in the process instead of just dealing with the effects afterwards.”
So when she was offered the chance to help our foreign allies in Niger deal with service members’ mental health issues and possible post-traumatic stress disorders, it was an easy choice.
“I was on orders for the COVID support mission for about six months when I was approached with the idea of me coming here to help support Niger and their Army,” Nevers said. “I wanted to help really nail down what their needs are in growing their behavioral health system to address the increased presence of PTSD that they’ve seen over the last few years of sustained operations.”
Little did she know she would meet someone with the same goals already in the Niger army, Lt. Col. Aichatou Ousmane Issaka, the Niger Armed Forces director of psychological and social services.
“When I met Capt. Jennifer, I was really happy,” Aichatou said. “During previous visits, we were never visited by people who have this kind of specialty. When she talks, it’s like she is in my mind. It is a big opportunity for me and for my hierarchy because, before this, people didn’t care about this topic. People would say to go to combat, you should really only be strong with muscles, but they forget about the mind.”
According to the International Crisis Group, Niger decided to go to war with Boko Haram, an African arm of al-Qaida, in 2014 after the terrorist group began recruiting young Nigeriens.
Since then, due to the prolonged conflict, Niger has seen an increase in mental health-related concerns in its military — something the U.S. military knows about all too well.
“A lot of Niger’s clinical focus is on theory and not necessarily evidence-based treatments,” Nevers said. “So my real hope and intent is that we can help increase that knowledge base so that they feel more capable to provide those services.”
Despite all the recent challenges with the COVID-19 pandemic, both parties are eager to begin working together again and make a healthier army and a healthier Niger.