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NEWS | Nov. 1, 2010

Air Guard adds psychological health directors to wings

By Sgt. Darron Salzer, National Guard Bureau

ARLINGTON, Va., - The Air National Guard has created a new position at the wing level to provide mental health support to Airmen and their families before and after deployments.

"The Air Guard is the only service component that does not have military members, who are mental health professionals or technicians," said Air Force Maj. James Coker, chief of public health and prevention for the Air Guard surgeon's general office. "We do not have that career field in the Air Guard, so putting someone who can direct those types of programs is very important."

In addition to the mental health and non-medical support services, these wing directors of psychological health (WDPH) will be the point of contact for the Automated Neuropsychological Assessment Metrics (ANAM) program, the Yellow Ribbon program, Air Force suicide prevention programs and the Air Force resiliency program when it is fielded.

"These duties, and several others dealing with mental health, will depend upon the needs of the wing and its mission," said Coker. "The WDPH will take into account Air Force unique missions as well as Guard domestic operation issues on an individual basis."

Coker said that the WDPH would also have daily interaction with wing personnel and work alongside chaplains, Air Guard substance abuse personnel, and in direct coordination with state director of psychological health.

"As mentioned by Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, and several other military officials, there has not only been a steady increase suicides, but also post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injuries (TBI)," Coker said. "The Air Guard is no exception, and though it is more difficult to track PTSD and TBI cases, we have had a slight increase in suicides over the last two years."

Air Guard officials hope to have a total of 97 WDPHs located across the country.

"We gave priority to certain bases," said Coker. "What we have done is recognize those bases that are classified as high risk, such as the ones who have had multiple cases of suicides over the last five years, and those who have air evacuation, unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) and air sovereignty missions."

He added that base population and deployment numbers were also factored into prioritizing who would receive the first of these directors.

"Of course as more funding becomes available, the remainder of the wings will receive their director of health," he said.

Coker said two of the positions have been filled at the National Guard Bureau. They are headquarters positions responsible for the East Coast and the West Coast.

"There are also be six regional leads that will be located at active duty bases that the Air Guard shares, allowing direct access to the best resources," Coker said.

He added that 55 positions will be filled in the first round, and then 42 once more funding is obtained.

Qualified candidates need to have a master's or doctorate degree in a clinical or mental health-related field, experience in case management, a minimum of five years post master's of clinical or mental health care experience, experience and knowledge of the military health care system, and extensive military experience and background.

Having a full-time person at the wing to work these mental health issues will help Airmen and their families to cope with the stresses of deployment.

"They are there working day-to-day with all of the personnel in that wing, and hopefully this will mitigate the stigma associated with asking for help with mental health issues," Coker said.