Warfighter Mental Health: After a Tour of Duty

By Richard Meldrum

This article is the third in a series on Warfighter Mental Health. Check out the previous article: Warfighter Mental Health: On Deployment.

When warfighters return from the battlefield, they are often processing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues that have been caused or exacerbated by the rigors of combat. When a military unit uses a human performance management system, psychologists, counselors, psychiatrists, and other professionals on base can be prepared to begin treatment the moment the warfighter arrives back from an overseas deployment, so they can get the care they need quickly.

When it comes to treating psychological or psychiatric issues in the military, time is of the essence. Support staff cannot afford to wait too long or be purely reactive when a warfighter needs clinical care, counseling, or to meet with a psychologist. Otherwise, the issue can quickly compound to the point the individual is unfit for active duty, which can not only compromise their career but also reduce the effectiveness of their unit. Without a human performance management platform, psychological and psychiatric care delivery is often delayed, which can have a negative impact on clinical outcomes.

As I mentioned in the previous part of this series, monitoring objective and subjective data during deployment enables clinicians to have a complete and up-to-date picture of each warfighters’ mental state. Even if the soldiers they serve are deployed on the other side of the globe, the performance and medical teams at home base can keep tabs on progression, regression, and stagnation by using such a system.

 

OPTIMIZING THE CONTINUUM OF CARE

Another benefit of utilizing an AMS is that it facilitates an uninterrupted continuum of care between the initial deployment, time back on base, and the next tour of duty. Taming such transitions in the lifecycle of the warfighter is crucial to preserving operational readiness, enabling individuals to assume greater leadership duties, and making the most of learning new skills. Psychological stress has a detrimental impact in all these areas and also reduces KPIs such as lethality and survivability.

As there is no true barrier between the body and brain, there are some physical tests that can indicate a lack of recovery and/or imbalance in the autonomic nervous system that regulates the warfighter’s stress response. For example, timing gates such as SmartSpeed can be used to not only gauge reaction time but also determine whether an individual has spent sufficient time in a rest/digest (aka parasympathetic) state since returning from their tour of duty. If they’re still stuck in a heightened fight/flight/freeze mode (sympathetic state), their scores in this assessment and others like vertical jump on a force plate and grip strength during loaded carriers will likely be lower than normal.

This will likely correlate with compromised sleep quality and low heart rate variability, both of which – if repeated for long enough – minimize the capacity for physical, cognitive, and emotional recovery. In situations where a warfighter has seen friends die, has personally been injured, or has just been kept on elevated alert while deployed in combat, such metrics might have already been on a downward trajectory.

 

OBTAINING A 360-DEGREE VIEW OF WARFIGHTERS’ EMOTIONAL HEALTH

The AMS not only details such objective measures but, as I wrote in my previous post, can also be used to overlay subjective data from self-reported surveys. Gathering such mental wellness and morale data empowers chaplains, psychologists, psychiatrists, and other specialists attached to the unit to have a 360-degree view of each warfighter’s state both in real time and historically. This way, they can make more informed and timely decisions about when and how an individual needs help with their mindset and mental health.

All too often, units don’t use such a system and warfighters who are in desperate need of intervention – even if that’s just having someone to talk to on a regular basis outside of their fellow troops – are likely to fall through the cracks. In which case, their suicidal ideations, negative self-talk, cognitive distortions, and other issues might escalate to the point that they can no longer perform peacetime duties, let alone be ready and prepared to be sent back into battle.

If a warfighter’s mental health deteriorates to the point that he or she needs to be discharged, the AMS details their performance and recovery data to demonstrate how trauma impacted them both physically and mentally. As I’ll expand on in the next and final installment of this series, such details can prove that they’re suffering from a legitimate clinical condition and can ensure that they’re compensated appropriately during and after the honorable discharge process.

 

PROTECTING THE HUMAN WEAPON SYSTEM

Our armed forces have deemed the human weapon system to be the most valuable asset in today’s military. As such, we need to come to the point that people-first approaches are united with technology-driven insights to provide proactive and comprehensive mental health care throughout each and every warfighter’s career. The return from a tour of duty is often an inflection point at which support staff need to step in and take decisive action so that individuals can process their trauma, resolve their mindset challenges, and move on with the remainder of a productive career.

Anything less is a dereliction of duty on the part of military leaders that will not only weaken our nation’s defenses but also have fallout for individual families. On the other hand, deploying an AMS as part of a system that contains appropriate post-deployment checks and balances can help restore and preserve warfighters’ emotional wellbeing so they are more effective while on duty and more well-adjusted when they go home.

 

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