By Richard Meldrum
This article is the second in a series on Warfighter Mental Health. Check out the previous article: Warfighter Mental Health: Pre-Deployment
In recent years, the US military has become much more proactive in prioritizing the health of its most valuable asset, the Human Weapons System. And yet despite the great strides that have been taken at the top of the chain of command, there remains an opportunity to address depression, anxiety, and trauma-related conditions sooner after actively deployed troops have sustained physical, cognitive, and emotional trauma on the battlefield.
With the advent of new programs like POTFF, there’s a real chance for special forces units to become more proactive in addressing mental health concerns before their warfighters even return from overseas. Technology can play an important part in this and, therefore, in improving clinical outcomes and extending warfighters’ careers.
Although it’s impossible to remove all stressors from warfighters while they’re in combat, encouraging them to complete mental health surveys on a regular basis can provide a real-time insight into their emotional wellbeing, even in the most stressful environments.
A tactical human performance management platform like Smartabase can alert commanders when a problem is presenting itself so they can take remedial action without the risk of the issue becoming worse and compromising both the lethality and survivability of the warfighter. Such an intervention could take the form of issuing a warfighter a three- or four-day leave pass and to send them back to the main base to take advantage of better fitness and wellness facilities than they have access to at forward operating bases (FOBs).
Combining Wellness/Emotional Readiness Surveys with Sleep and HRV Data
Subjective, self-reported information gleaned from surveys can become even more potent and actionable when units combine it with objective data sets. For example, if a warfighter’s HRV or sleep data is outside preset desirable ranges for more than a few days in a row (as detailed in the AMS), this can trigger a notification to chaplains, commanding officers, and support staff so they can check in with the individual and offer extra support as needed.
Sometimes this could be as simple as providing pointers on sleep hygiene, breath work, or stress management. In other cases, such alerts could prompt the chaplain to meet with the warfighter one-on-one or, when appropriate, for a trusted commanding officer to do the same. This signals to the individual that they are not merely a cog in the combat wheel, but rather a valued member of the unit whose commanders and fellow warfighters care about them and want to help support them through whatever mental health issue they’re currently struggling with.
For data collection to be timely, complete, and actionable, the various inputs need to be optimized depending on the situation that warfighters find themselves in. To this end, it’s unrealistic for warfighters to use wearables like the Oura ring or heart rate-monitoring chest straps in combat as they might be able to in regular active service because of the nature of the missions and the equipment and body armor being wielded and worn. With this in mind, they can be advised to wear more versatile devices like a Garmin watch that can be utilized even in the toughest conditions and can help monitor their wellness via the AMS during active tours of duty.
If such a device has already been rolled out before deployment, this will give the warfighters in question a greater feeling of familiarity, which can be disrupted when attempting to introduce new wearables. It might not seem like a big ask (or, in the military command structure, an order) to request that entire units begin using a certain piece of technology for the first time while deployed overseas, but such small changes in routine can exacerbate anxiety and uncertainty and contribute to emotional regulation issues. In combat, the key is keeping to standard operating procedures (SOPs), and this should extend to fitness/wellness technology too.
Providing a Mental Health Audit Trail
Another reason why unit commanders should consider utilizing an AMS like Smartabase is accountability. Gathering real-time and historical data and aggregating it on a single performance management platform helps warfighters prove that they have valid mental health concerns when they return home, which simplifies their eligibility for benefits, mental health services, and so on.
Without the combination of wearables and an AMS, this process becomes a lot more complicated and time-consuming. The kind of one-on-one meetings between a warfighter and their chaplain or commanding officer is usually off-the-record, often very brief because of intra-deployment duties, and rarely documented. While the individual might claim that they met with so and so, even they are unlikely to record the place, time, and date of such an interaction and a CO, chaplain, or other specialist will probably struggle to recall such details on demand.
This is where the AMS comes in. It can provide a new level of digital accountability by combining subjective wellness/emotional readiness survey information and corresponding objective data like sleep and HRV scores. Meetings between warfighters and others can also be documented simply in the system, showing that there was an intervention. Such an audit trail is vital when warfighters are seeking further mental health support after they return from tours of duty and if their PTSD or other disorder should make them eligible to receive treatment and compensation for a chronic condition.
This is a crucial part in the puzzle for POTFF and other similar initiatives. We simply cannot afford to wait until warfighters return home to treat and document their trauma. And if units are to become more proactive and drive better outcomes for their personnel, the AMS is an essential conduit to improved mental health and overall wellbeing.