Your check engine light

WHITEMAN AIR FORCE BASE, Mo. -- You’re driving down the road and your “check engine” light comes on. You might have low fluids, a faulty oxygen sensor, or even something as simple as your gas cap not fully tightened.

We are similar to cars. We require maintenance and need to do a “check-up from the neck up” every once in a while. We all experience stressors on a daily basis. Situations out of our control happen to all of us but it’s how we respond those obstacles that matters.

It took losing a stripe for me to finally realize I needed to get some help.

I heard going to the Mental Health Clinic would ruin my career. I’d get kicked out of the Air Force. I thought I would be judged and deemed “crazy” if I went to the clinic. I needed help and instead of seeking this valuable resource, I made bad decisions that negatively impacted my career.

After doing my research, gaining insight from Maj Button, as well as setting up an appointment for myself, I learned the rumors were not true.

“We have done a great job teaching our Airmen to keep an eye on the “tire pressure” of everyone else’s car, but we have not taught them to check their own tires,” said Maj Christopher Button, the Mental Health Flight Commander and Wing Director of Psychological Health. “What I would really love to do is get Airmen to spend time assessing their own car, that is…to introspect and examine their own mental well-being.”

The Mental Health Clinic’s mission is to restore the psychological well-being and functioning of Airmen in distress, it is not to negatively impact the careers and lives of Airmen, nor facilitate the early separation of Airmen.

“The Air Force placed Mental Health providers in Medical Groups to restore the warfighter to the fight,” said Button. “We are not here to end careers or ruin lives. None of us [providers] ever took a course in ruining people’s lives. We were all trained in civilian universities and academic training programs, we adhere to the same professional ethics and laws as our civilian counterparts. People often believe that the action of seeking help is what causes negative career implications. However, it is most often caused by waiting until the problems you are facing become so severe that they significantly affect other important areas of your life. For example, when a relationship problem leads to a drinking problem, which leads to a DUI and occupational problems. And even then, while we may not be able to prevent the career implications of the DUI, we are still able to rehabilitate Airmen and restore functioning whether they remain in, or separate from service.”

The only situation in which a member is recommended for release from service is when the nature of their psychiatric condition significantly impairs the member’s ability to function in a military environment and the Airman cannot be restored to full duty status or when they cannot be restored within in a reasonable amount of time.

In 2016, only 9 (2.1%) of the 433 new patients who sought care at the Mental Health Clinic were administratively separated and 22 (5.1%) were medically retired. In other words, most new patients (93%) were returned to full-duty status or are still actively engaged in treatment and on the road to full restoration.

“Of the 31 patients who were recommended for retirement or separation, none of them reported discontentment with the outcome. Although they may not tell members of their unit, they are generally content.” said Button.

Being mentally fit begins with the basics of a healthy diet, exercise, good sleep; and also includes finding a healthy work-life balance as well as living consistent with your values and finding purpose and meaning in your life. However, sometimes we lose sight of these things and our usual coping skills aren’t enough.

When should you seek help?

“Life is going to throw tough situations at us, it’s going to knock you down,” said Button. “When we are hurting and suffering it is okay to take a knee and come into Mental Health and ask for our help.”

Indications you should seek help include suicidal thoughts, feelings of worthlessness or hopelessness, feeling like you do not belong or fit in, believing you are a burden to others, or when you may have substance abuse problems, to name a few. Take a moment to self-reflect and consider services that the Mental Health clinic offers and ask yourself, “Do I think I would benefit from seeking help?”

Does my “check engine” light still come on sometimes? Of course it does. But now I am better equipped with the tools to identify and solve the problem, and I am willing to ask for help if the problem is too great for me to solve on my own. There is no shame or weakness in seeking help; it is rather an act of strength.

The Mental Health Clinic offers psychological evaluations and diagnosis and a variety of treatment options. These include individual and group therapy sessions, medication management, psychoeducational services and much more, along with programs such as the Behavioral Health Optimization Program (BHOP), Alcohol & Drug Abuse Prevention & Treatment (ADAPT) and the Family Advocacy Program (FAP).

“We have a limited number of personnel in the Air Force,” said Button. “There are so few of us and such an important mission to accomplish. The Air Force needs every one of us at our healthiest, both physically and mentally, in order to effectively execute the mission. The best thing any Airmen, regardless of rank, can do is to seek help…and to seek it early.”

All Active Duty, military dependents, and retirees who are empaneled to the Military Treatment Facility are eligible for brief behavioral health services through BHOP (available by calling the appointment line at 660-687-2188) and all Active Duty personnel are eligible for services offered in the Mental Health Clinic (including BHOP). Active Duty personnel may call the Mental Health Clinic at 660-687-4341 to begin screening to determine the appropriate level of care necessary. Most Active Duty personnel will begin with BHOP services, unless the nature and severity of their concerns warrant treatment within the Mental Health Clinic.