Inside the Gates: Improving soldier behavioral health

Over the past year, U.S. Army Alaska has put into motion 60 plus initiatives to improve soldier quality of life
Published: Sep. 30, 2020 at 3:22 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Since spring 2018, there have been a high number of soldiers and airmen taking their own lives in Alaska. In 2019, a behavioral health epidemiological consultation was requested to examine the situation, primarily on Fort Wainwright near Fairbanks.

“We’ve had some challenges recently and we’ve put a significant amount of effort against that,” U.S. Army Alaska Commander Maj. Gen. Peter Andrysiak said. “Every month, commanders sit around a table with behavioral resource specialist and everyone who provides resources to this to understand what is going on, making sure that soldiers who have challenges that we are connecting them to their resources.”

Over the last year, the U.S. Army has made significant changes to improve the quality of life for its soldiers.

“I’ve got a line item of product here that has 60 plus initiatives that we have put into place over the last year,” Andrysiak said.

Improvements include upgrades and additional barracks, food and snack courts, structures for gym facilities and fieldhouses.

“In the interim, we’ve put in sprung structures where soldiers can go inside, it’s got astroturf, it’s got concrete that’s laid out there and they can get in there and get after PT every day,” Andrysiak said. “We’ve converted a hangar and put a running track in it, put astroturf in it, equipment in there.”

Andrysiak is also aware of the importance of mental health in the soldiers he oversees.

“Alaska is a little bit more unique,” Andrysiak said. “It has a very different environment that can be very lethal.”

Many soldiers struggle with Alaska’s short days in the winter, the frigid climate and sleeping during the long days of sunlight in the summer. This year’s COVID-19 pandemic has not made the Army’s charge towards better behavioral health any easier.

“Every month, commanders sit around a table with behavioral resources specialist and everyone who provides resources to this to understand what is going on,” Andrysiak said. “Making sure that soldiers who have challenges that we are connecting them to their resources. The Army has plenty of resources.”

The Army may have the resources but the stigma of asking for help still remains. Not only in the Army but throughout all the Armed Forces.

“White knuckling it,” Veteran Affairs' Suicide Prevention Coordinator Rebeca Chace said. “Definitely people do it, however, we need to go ahead and decrease the stigma more than what it is out there.”

September is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. Chace said the issue swirling around mental health isn’t solely about suicide, it’s a matter of asking for help for a myriad of situations military members, veterans and civilians experience on a daily basis. Chace says prevention and mental health is everybody’s responsibility and shared some sign to be on the lookout for.

“Mood swings, going up really high with anger,” Chace said. “Depressed, crying, isolating themselves. Maybe using alcohol or substances to self-medicate at first to numb those feelings and it becomes an addiction which becomes an added problem.”

Chace says for military members and veterans who need someone to talk to, or if they know of someone who needs help, to call the Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-237-TALK

There is also the Chris Kyle Patriots Hospital, The Steven A. Cohen Military Family Clinic and JBER Connect in Anchorage.

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