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NEWS | May 19, 2022

A matter of life or death: seeking help for mental health

By Senior Master Sgt. Beth Holliker, 180th Fighter Wing, Ohio National Guard

SWANTON, Ohio – “I was highly suicidal and I told my husband that if he didn’t take me to the hospital, I wasn’t going to continue to live.”

For Tech. Sgt. Jilayne Michelsen, assigned to the Ohio National Guard’s 180th Fighter Wing, being able to ask her husband for help during her darkest hour saved her life, her family and her military career.

“I did not know what I was experiencing when it initially happened,” said Michelsen. “It was my first panic attack that sent me into a never-ending spiral.”

Michelsen knew something was wrong shortly after the birth of her second child in 2015. With the support of her husband, she was admitted to a hospital and diagnosed with severe postpartum depression, anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

“To be completely candid,” Michelsen continued, “it was a matter of life or death. Because I hold a top-secret security clearance, I knew I might be jeopardizing my career by having myself admitted, but I really wanted to live and I simply didn’t know how to continue on in the state I was in. I needed help.”

Michelsen followed her three older sisters — who serve in the Active-Duty Air Force and Air National Guard — and enlisted into the ANG in 2007, planning to use the tuition assistance program to put herself through college.

As a command post controller, Michelsen ensures the success of the 180FW’s NORAD Aerospace Control Alert mission. She is also responsible for maintaining command and control of and reporting on the wing’s assets and personnel to state and national higher headquarters.

“My favorite part of the job is the importance it holds,” said Michelsen. “In the event of an emergency, we serve as an information hub, responsible for time-sensitive activities. As an operations center, our role is critical to the success of many major affairs. Some days can be monotonous, but when something significant happens, you know your actions play a vital part in the bigger picture.”

Michelsen knew there was a good chance she could lose her security clearance and her position after sharing her story with her chain of command.

“I wanted to be completely honest and I knew I had to tell my supervisor what had happened,” Michelsen said. “I don’t regret that decision at all. I believe my honesty helped my supervisor to better understand my situation during my months of recovery as I worked with our director of psychological health and a civilian mental health practitioner.”

Michelsen continues to focus on her mental health while balancing full-time military service and raising her family.

“I’ve learned to recognize that maintaining wholesome mental health is a lifelong process that we need to continue to nourish,” Michelsen said. “And that may look different for everyone.”

She tries to find at least 30 minutes each day to do something that makes her happy.

“Sometimes it’s reading a book or scrolling through social media. Sometimes it’s meditating or just taking a long shower. I give myself that small window of time to settle, start or reset,” she said.

Along with taking the time for self-care each day, Michelsen uses coping techniques to balance any stressful situations, including a favorite mantra.

“A big mantra, or affirmation, I like to remember is that nothing in life is permanent,” said Michelsen. “No matter how terrible things may get, they won’t always be that way. Time will pass, things will change and nothing I’m feeling, or dealing with, will stay that way forever.”

While mental health in the military was often considered a taboo topic, that has changed for the better in recent years. One factor was the 2010 decision to assign full-time directors of psychological health to ANG bases across the country.

Working with the 180FW’s DPH, Alina Fuller, and her civilian mental health provider, Michelsen learned she was not alone in her struggles. She makes every effort to share her story so that other Airmen will know they are not alone either.

“I also think it’s important that the people you work with are aware of your history or current situation so they can keep an eye on you and be there to help when needed,” she said.

Michelsen says her mental health journey has been positive and negative, with the positive far outweighing the negative.

“My mental health struggles have definitely impacted my life,” Michelsen said. “On the negative side, I still carry a lot of guilt from that period of my life. I don’t remember much of the time spent with my children during that first year after my son was born. I’m certain I was unpleasant to be around and I had several strained relationships during that time.”

But she said she wouldn’t change a thing.

“I have had so much positivity come from the events surrounding my diagnosis. I have developed a multitude of coping mechanisms to address my anxiety, depression and OCD,” she said. “I have gained the ability to help others by being open with my struggles. I have taught my children ways to recognize and mitigate feelings of anxiety and depression. Most importantly, I have proven to myself that I am stronger than I ever knew imaginable.”

As a noncommissioned officer who has battled mental health struggles, Michelsen knows how important it is to look out for her fellow Airmen and support them, using the three steps provided during annual suicide prevention training: A.C.E – Ask. Care. Escort.

” As leaders, it is important to be able to recognize when someone may be struggling,” said Michelsen. “We need to be able to sit down with them, ask what is going on and listen. We need to assure them that there is no need to fear negative repercussions for seeking help. And we need to be able to identify what type of support they may need and help them get to the proper professionals who can provide them with the resources needed.”

Michelsen urges Airmen with potential mental health issues to seek help. . Go to the DPH, chaplain or primary care doctor, or Military OneSource.

“Do not wait until your struggles become too much for you to carry on your own. Seek help as soon as you feel you need it, and know that the military is so much more understanding and supportive today,” she said. “Know that your mental well-being is something you will carry with you for a lifetime, and it should be your No. 1 priority.”