By Richard Meldrum
As someone who proudly served my country in the US Army, I have seen firsthand how the mental wellbeing of our brave servicemen and women is continually imperiled by the trauma of war, the impact of live firing exercises, and the other demands of service that are unique to the warfighter.
Many people think that members of the military only struggle with their mental health during deployment, but in reality, the rigors of basic and advanced training and everyday duties of active service take their toll long before a warfighter ever sees the field. In this first installment of a new series, I’ll take aim at using data and technology to support mental health before deployment.
Assessing the Toll of Injuries and Concussive Blasts
It might seem counterintuitive, but warfighter injuries are actually higher during training exercises than active deployment. These don’t just take a physical toll, but also impact your state of mind and confidence in your ability to do your job going forward without getting hurt again or letting your unit down.
This is one of the reasons a system like Smartabase is needed – to help medical staff, psychologists, chaplains, performance coaches, and commanders have ready access to warfighters’ health and wellness data in one place. And then to use this information to make more timely and informed decisions about the acute and chronic care that warfighters might need before they ever see the battlefield for the first time.
A performance management platform can also ingest data from Blast Gauge or similar systems to help staff assess warfighters’ exposure to concussive explosions, artillery shell detonations, and small arms fire in training. Certain specialties like demolitions are exposed to a greater number of such concussive incidents due to the nature of their work. Exposure to a single blast might not be enough to cause permanent brain damage, but over the long term, continual micro-traumas can compound into significant traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) and pre-dispose warfighters to lasting damage that can profoundly impact mental health and readiness alike.
Many warfighters are reluctant to admit to struggling with depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues, as they fear doing so will show weakness and rule them out of active deployment. There needs to be a cultural shift in the military that makes them feel safe to admit that they have a mental health need.
If a serious mental health issue presents itself, commanding officers have a duty of care to help the individual get the psychological and possibly psychiatric assistance they need before they are sent overseas. Otherwise, the depression, anxiety, substance abuse, or whatever the problem is will impede the warfighter’s readiness, lethality, and ability to endure an entire deployment. All too often such conditions are not assessed in the pre-deployment phase, let alone dealt with adequately.
Progressing from Reactive to Proactive Mental Health Interventions
A platform like Smartabase empowers performance specialists to detect a growing mental wellbeing issue earlier and then take meaningful and appropriate action before it becomes cognitively, emotionally, and even physically debilitating. Doing so before a warfighter is cleared to go on a tour of duty fulfills the obligation to the individual’s overall health that is at the core of programs like POTFF.
In some cases, the fear of being ruled out of deployment might be realized, but this should not become a blot on the warfighter’s copy book. Identifying a mental health challenge and dealing with it head on is not a sign of weakness or deficiency, but rather of strength and demonstrates the warfighter’s commitment to the continuation of their military career.
Many honorable discharges could be prevented and careers extended if the attitude toward mental health in the US military shifted and appropriate levels of disclosure and even vulnerability were encouraged rather than disparaged. This will require a significant cultural change and a continued prioritization of cognitive and emotional wellbeing from the Pentagon down.
Raising Red Flags from Objective and Subjective Data
So how exactly can a performance management platform like Smartabase help during the pre-deployment phase of each warfighter’s lifecycle? In my opinion, the key is an intersection between objective and subjective data.
Visualizing sleep and recovery tracking in an AMS system and overlaying this with regularly scheduled wellness survey responses can help identify mental health issues before they get out of hand and inform meaningful interventions that precede tours of duty. Such information is meaningless if it exists in isolation. Unit commanders need to work with specialists like psychologists and counselors to decide which mental health conditions are most prolific among personnel. Then from there, they can work backward to find data sets that might pertain to these. The next step involves identifying “healthy” ranges within the information and then setting thresholds for “unhealthy” situations.
For example, with objective data, you can define a minimum viable number for sleep scores and heart rate variability (HRV) obtained from an Oura ring, Whoop band, or Garmin smartwatch. These are both key indicators of recovery. If a warfighter has consistently sub-standard scores in both categories for more than a week, his or her commanding officer and the unit’s psychologist and chaplain can be alerted. They can then speak with the soldier and find out what’s going on.
This approach becomes even more potent when subjective data is introduced alongside more objective measurements. For instance, every member of the unit fills out a mental wellness survey at the start and end of each week, with their scores collated in Smartabase. Again, if there’s a significant dip in the data or scores are consistently below a pre-established threshold, the relevant staff are notified automatically. This way, the guesswork is removed and interventions can be made in a more timely and accurate fashion so warfighters get the help they need before they’re deployed.