CONCORD, N.H. – Since March, more than 700 members of the New Hampshire National Guard have been activated for pandemic relief efforts across the state. From food pantries and PPE warehouses to test sites, they have answered the call.
And through each mission, behavioral health professionals have shepherded Soldiers and Airmen during quarantines, travel restrictions, social distancing and lockdowns.
"We've had great visibility on our Soldiers throughout this time," said Maj. Troy Townsend, director of psychological health for the New Hampshire Army National Guard. "A preventative approach versus a reactive is more preferred."
Townsend, with his therapy dog "Cache," was hired about 11 months ago – just in time to help guide the NHARNG through the pandemic. He consults leadership and steers clients to available psychological health services.
"Soldiers can come to me directly," Townsend said. "But a commonality is peer network, Soldier to Soldier. I'm a resource for access."
He's been particularly impressed with how Soldiers have looked out for each other.
"The New Hampshire National Guard can be proud of mitigating some significant mental health crisis events during COVID because soldiers have been proactive about staying connected to one another," Townsend said. "This connectedness has led to identifying issues before they become severe."
Guard members haven't been impervious to the stressors of pandemic life.
Donald Roussel, the director of psychological health for the 157th Air Refueling Wing (ARW) at Pease Air National Guard Base, has been with the organization since 2015 and has noticed a concerning trend.
"We've seen an increase in alcohol consumption in cases of parental stress and work-life balance and generalized COVID fatigue," Roussel said.
He offers some advice to reduce stress.
"I've noticed some who are super-focused on COVID news," Roussel said. "Minimize contact with news feeds and seek more trusted news sources for information."
The New Hampshire Guard's chaplain corps has worked closely with those responsible for psychological health, helping commanders check on troops and ensure their well-being since COVID-19 missions began in late March.
"When people experience isolation, you can see an uptick in suicidal thoughts," said Capt. Duston Thomas, a part-time chaplain with the 157th ARW since 2003. "I have not seen that in our Airmen because they're getting up, getting out of the house, they're doing meaningful work. They feel a sense of accomplishment being able to contribute to our community and state."
Thomas said his counsel serves as a reminder of the "presence of the sacred," which he stresses can benefit all Guard members, regardless of religious preference.
"We do have something to offer everyone," Thomas said. "Atheists say, 'Come on, chaplain. Why would I come see you?'" Thomas replies, "You won't know until you come."
So far, he's been impressed with people supporting people.
"I think they've done a great job of being wingmen for each other," Thomas said.
Col. Steven Veinotte, a full-time chaplain with 54th Troop Command in Concord, said communication between behavioral health professionals is key.
"We all talk, appropriately," Veinotte said. "We all share. We know what resources are available to folks to meet the needs if needs arise, and we've been able to kind of all pull in the same direction and communicate with each other on what needs to happen. There's been a good support network."
As social isolation, lockdowns and quarantines extend through the winter, Roussel said people must understand there is no stigma attached to asking for help.
"People worry about, 'If I see the director of psychological health, will it ruin my career,' " Roussel said. "And that's a myth. People will go to the doctor if they have a broken arm, but if they're overwhelmed and stressed, some won't come to mental health for fear of being kicked out. Our services are here. Just let us know when and if you need something."
He also stressed the importance of good sleep, a healthy diet, exercise and seeking social connection to strengthen resiliency.
Guard members in need of assistance can seek services directly on their own or through their chain of command.
"There's no wrong door," Townsend said. "We'll get the support they need."