Mental Health in the Air Force

Combat pilots and bombardiers are some of the most skilled and resilient warriors serving in the armed forces, yet that does not exclude these service members from the emotional and behavioral issues facing all military personnel.

Eight years of war, and the U.S. commitment of sending more troops to Afghanistan throughout 2010, has resulted in rising behavioral health issues, especially for those engaged in high intensity combat situations such as those found in the Air Force.

Depression, anxiety, and anger management issues develop as a result of repeated deployments, sometimes resulting in less than one year between assignments. And reliving brutal combat situations where Air Force members fear for their lives also triggers more serious injuries, such as post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

For families, the emotional impact of a parent or spouse deploying, returning home, and re-deploying, is monumental. Spouses are left at home to manage jobs, children, and running the household. Kids, fearing for a parent’s safety yet unable to express that fear, begin acting out. Grades plummet and teens rebel. These situations put pressure on marriages, and result in family members also developing depression and anxiety. A vicious cycle can set in that leaves many families struggling to function in a healthy and productive manner.

Because of the increased stressors on service members and their families, the Air Force has increased the number of mental health professionals in its primary-care facilities. These professionals work with other healthcare providers, integrating care and making it more accessible to the entire family.

Mental health professionals also work on Air Force bases and at deployment centers where troops prepare to leave for Iraq or Afghanistan. At the deployment centers, they focus their efforts on suicide prevention, and alcohol and substance abuse programs. They also provide short-term therapies on stress and anxiety techniques, such as deep breathing and muscle relaxation exercises.

When Air Force members return home, mental health workers assess the degree of emotional or behavioral impairment. Some provide short-term interventions, others provide more long-term therapies, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy and exposure-based therapy. Others refer individuals to psychotherapists. Marriage counselors and psychologists are also available to help families cope with readjustment issues.

For those who return home injured, Air Force psychologists work in military hospitals teaching chronic pain management, and tips on dealing with insomnia, headaches, or more physically disabling conditions. They also work with families, teaching individuals how to care for and cope with a spouse or parent’s disability.

The Air Force has increased its recruiting efforts to fill a number of mental health care positions. This branch of the armed services also hires licensed psychologists who desire a commission, and these psychologists serve in military hospitals, work in deployment centers, and travel overseas with troops based in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Air Force personnel and family members can also receive care from a mental health provider who accepts TRICARE, the insurance plan for military families. And many civilian, nonprofit organizations provide mental health services for those who don’t live close to a military hospital, or don’t have TRICARE providers in their geographical region.

For those desiring to work with Air Force service members and their families, and wanting to become a mental health professional, the military has increased its scholarships and training programs to meet the increased demand. A background in psychology is highly desirable for these positions, as well as civilian positions with organizations that hire mental health professionals to work with military personnel.

If serving those who serve the country interests you, especially in the mental health field, get started by requesting information from schools that offer psychology degrees.

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