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New Mental Health Emphasis Provides A Lifeline For National Guard Soldiers

Montana Air National Guard planes.
UNK - Montana Air National Guard
Montana Air National Guard planes.

A U.S. Department of Defense report says the National Guard’s suicide rate is higher than its active duty and Reserve counterparts. DoD says there are several suicide risk factors in the military, including a cultural stigma surrounding psychological health care.

The Montana Air National Guard is testing out one of 23 pilot programs in the nation aimed at getting care to soldiers in new ways. MTPR’s Edward O’Brien introduces us to a career Montana military officer who, during one of her life’s darkest chapters, reached out for help and was thrown a lifeline.

This story contains descriptions of violence and animal abuse.

Captain Casey Ross shoulders a lot of responsibility in her role as Executive Officer of the Montana Air National Guard’s 120th Airlift Wing. It’s a career Ross cherishes. One that mental health issues once threatened to unravel.

“Honestly, my youth was pretty intense.”

Early in our interview Ross mentions in passing that she was abused as a child and leaves it at that. For a better sense of where she’s coming from, I ask if she’s willing to share specifics.

“You want me to share some of the trauma and abuse? I can.”

And she does. It’s heavy stuff.

“My dad was intense; you could say that. He would do things like buy cats and then torture them to death in front of us, which for a little girl is incredibly traumatizing. He beat more than one dog to death in front of us after we got attached to the dog.”

Captain Ross says she also endured physical and sexual abuse in the home. Any show of emotion would lead to more abuse. To cope, she learned to shut down. That emotional suppression eventually led to panic attacks, nightmares and depression as an adult.

“Honestly when I picked up my daughter and I realized that I felt nothing for her is when I started to realize that any progress I had made in feeling and understanding love was gone and I needed to readdress some of the stuff that was going on in order to be able to be there for my kids.”

Ross eventually found a therapist she could talk with but had to quit while attending flight school. After the training ended the emotional floodgates reopened and she started contemplating ...

“Suicide? Yes. I felt like I was so broken that I wasn’t going to be able to be helped. I felt like I was alone in this fight and nobody was going to get it. I just got to the place where I was done. I wanted to be able to sleep. I wanted to turn off all of it; the anxiety, all the flashbacks. I wanted control back over my mind and body. And I was done with the fight.”

Annual Suicide Counts and Rates per 100,000 Service members by DoD Component and Service, CY 2016 - 2018.
Credit U.S. Department of Defense
Annual Suicide Counts and Rates per 100,000 Service members by DoD Component and Service, CY 2016 - 2018.

Ross took part part in a new suicide prevention program within the National Guard piloted in Montana and 31 other states. Because Montana’s suicide rate consistently ranks among the highest in the nation, the Montana Air National Guard was selected to be a part of the project.

It offers monthly social events and provides training to reframe how the National Guard responds to sexual assaults, treating it as equally destructive as other common military threats.

The National Guard is expanding its psychological health pilots this year.

The U.S. Defense Department’s latest Annual Suicide Report shows the National Guard’s suicide rate is about 5 percent higher than its active duty counterparts -- 30.6 suicides per 100,000 Guard members According to DoD one possible factor is less daily interaction with commanders who could recognize warning signs and, if necessary, make mental health referrals.

Dr. Nick Polizzi is the Governmental Action Officer for the Real Warriors Campaign. That’s a separate Defense Department initiative to destigmatize psychological healthcare.

Polizzi says, “The rate of psychological health issues in the United States, depending on the statistic you look at can be anywhere from 10 to 20 percent give or take. This is not uncommon.”

Polizzi urges soldiers and the general public alike to heed early warning signs of potential psychological stress:

“Having trouble falling asleep. You’re having that third glass of wine at night. Over the weekend you found yourself betting more than you probably would've wanted to on that basketball game. Whatever it may be, that’s your body’s check engine light going off.”

Polizzi says paying attention to red flags and quickly seeking help yields better long term results than ignoring them. He adds early intervention is also a smart career move in the military.

“Big problems sometimes require big intervention, but if you’re able to address it early, a lot of times for folks who seek care we know the latest research is over 99-percent of them don't have a career impact.”

Montana Air National Guard Captain Casey Ross, left struggling with a lifetime of trauma and contemplating suicide, chose instead to reach out to her commanding officers for help.

“They pulled me in and supported me through that like I never could have imagined. I think that if people turn to their commanders now, it’s the rule, not the exception, that we are understanding to getting treatment and getting help and moving past whatever we’re struggling with and normalizing mental health as a whole.”

Ross says she’s glad the Guard is taking mental health issues seriously, and urges her fellow soldiers to, as she puts it, ‘tell their stories.’

“Mental Health is no different than physical health. If we can start owning our stories and saying ‘yes, I struggled with it and here is what worked for me,’ other people can look at that and go, ‘Hey that worked, I can try that.’ We have to start admitting what’s going on, owning where we’re at and sharing our stories so we can start to break the stigma associated with it [mental health issues].

Copyright 2020 Montana Public Radio. To see more, visit Montana Public Radio.

Edward O'Brien is Montana Public Radio's Associate News Director.