WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE — The United States is fast approaching the one-year anniversary of the first coronavirus infection on the country. Such an anniversary is an unwelcome reminder for the millions of people who have endured sickness, as well as economic hardship, and mental health problems. For members of the military, the last of these is critical, particularly given statistical data from last year.
A September report by the Associated Press indicated that rates of suicide amongst members of the military had increased by almost 20 percent. Causes of mental illness and suicide are complex, and it is impossible to pin these numbers solely on the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Army and Air Force officials. However, those same officials told the AP that lockdowns, quarantines, and lack of childcare have “strained an already strained force.”
Locally, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base has reflected efforts by the military to combat the soul-sucking isolation that COVID-19 has necessitated. In a December conference call with the Ohio Business Roundtable, Col. Patrick Miller voiced his distaste for the term “social distancing,” instead preferring the phrase “physically distanced, but socially connected.”
From what information is publicly available, that strategy appears to be doing some good.
“Here, we haven’t seen anything higher than average numbers of folks coming to see us,” said Capt. Aaron Esche, a staff psychologist at Wright-Patt Medical Center. Esche serves as director of psychological health, and make sure top officials at Wright-Patt are aware of mental health issues on the installation.
“People are stressed, sure, but it hasn’t translated much to higher than usual patients or the types of cases that we see,” Esche added.
Heath McNaughton, community support coordinator and resilience program manager at Wright-Patterson, noted that his agency’s role is to ensure airmen have the tools to adapt and overcome. Part of this included the transition to virtual tools.
“It’s kind of odd, from a helping agency perspective,” he said. “We had to immediately shift to a lot of digital platforms. We took off with that right off the bat, because social connectedness is really important.”
McNaughton added that younger airmen seemed to adapt better to the situation.
“Generationally speaking, younger airmen are more resilient because they’re kind of used to this already, interacting digitally,” he said.
Despite this, airmen are being encouraged to look out for each other, which involves being proactive in the digital space. Such sentiments have been echoed by leaders at the national level, as discussion around mental health and well-being have begun to permeate the highest levels of the military.
“The Air Force as a whole has been pushing connectedness well before COVID. It’s important, yes, but how do we navigate that, with physical interaction no longer being the standard?” McNaughton said.
In the digital space, one of the biggest tools for team leaders to check on their colleagues is also one of the simplest.
“You’ve got to actually ask people to turn their cameras on,” McNaughton said. “Being in meetings, discussions, and trying not to hide. Teams having that wellness check.”