Psychological health specialist there for Airmen, Soldiers wellness during the holidays

The Michigan Department of Veterans Affairs and Michigan National Guard have the responsibility of supporting and protecting those who defend our country, and so it is imperative that everything possible is done to prevent suicide in the military community. The Michigan Guard’s health program’s four goals are to improve mental health, ensure ready access to care, improve value of mental health care delivery through standardization, and provide short-term, solution-focused support to members who are experiencing interpersonal difficulties. Members of the Michigan Army National Guard can contact 517-481-8319, Michigan Air National Guard members – 269-969-3309, or reach out to Military OneSource 1-800-342-9647, Veterans Crisis Line 1-800-273-8255, or the Vet Center 1-877-927-8387. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Master Sgt. David Eichaker)

Michigan National Guard

Story by Master Sgt. David Eichaker

LANSINGThe Michigan Department of Veterans Affairs and Michigan National Guard have the responsibility of supporting and protecting those who defend our country, and so it is imperative that everything possible is done to prevent suicide in the military community. With the holiday season on the horizon and COVID-19 restrictions adding challenges to mental health due to social distancing and travel restrictions, additional stressors have been created.

“The holidays are traditionally when everyone can take time off from work and connect with people they care about and break their routine and travel,” said Sonya Bilski, director of psychological health (DPH), Michigan Air National Guard. “With COVID-19 surging across most of the country, these activities aren’t safe at this time.”

The coronavirus disease outbreak is unparalleled in its impact on our collective way of life.

“We are living in unprecedented times and it is important to take care of ourselves – both physically and mentally,” said Heather L. Nystrom, DPH, Michigan Army National Guard. “Paying attention to what our needs are and acting accordingly will help with monitoring our interpersonal and intrapersonal needs.”

The psychological health office’s primary focus is on the Guard member. The health program’s four goals are to improve mental health, ensure ready access to care, improve value of mental health care delivery through standardization, and provide short-term, solution-focused support to members who are experiencing interpersonal difficulties.

“One thing service members can do for healthier mental health is to address loneliness,” said Bilski. “This has been the year of isolation for many people so in order to combat this, they need make an effort to call or video chat with those they care about.”

“Remember checking in with others through email, text and social media and staying busy is a good way to fight off feelings of loneliness and you are less likely to focus on the fact that you are not able to engage with others like you used to,” said Bilski.

Another thing that can help with stress is having realistic expectations during the holiday season.

“When planning for the holidays make sure you are on the same page with family or friends,” said Bilski. “Have an open conversation as to how people want to celebrate, what will keep everyone safe and what virtual options are available for you to utilize and even though celebrations will be different this year, we can be creative and find new ways to celebrate the holidays.”

The psychological health office isn’t just for the service member—immediate family members can also receive help.

“Our office’s primary goal is to provide Soldiers with assistance they may need,” said Nystrom. “Anyone in the Michigan Army National Guard, may reach out to our team, and we will assess the situation and connect them to the needed resources accordingly.”

“Since we serve the Soldier as a whole, this includes providing support and assistance for family members as well,” said Nystrom.

The Air National Guard’s DPH services are similar to the Michigan Army Guard’s.

“The DPH office serves members of the Michigan Air National Guard, their dependents, and retirees from the Air Guard,” said Bilski. “In addition to military members, I am able to triage any of our civilian employees to assist them in accessing community resources as needed.”

Veterans and service members from the active component or reserves can potentially get assistance as well. The Michigan Veterans Affairs Agency (MVAA) has launched a new initiative called Check on MIVet, designed to get veterans, Michigan National Guard and reserve members connected to the benefits and services they earned for their service. Through the initiative, anyone concerned about a veteran, Guard or reserve member can simply fill out an online form requesting that a representative from MVAA or a partner organization check in on them through a phone call.

“The Michigan Veterans Affairs Agency is committed to providing the best resources for support, care, advocacy and service to veterans, Guard and reserve members and their families who live and work in our communities,” said Maj. Gen. Paul Rogers, Adjutant General and Director of the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs. “The ‘Check on MIVet’ program is another means of ensuring the path to these resources is clear.”

Psychological health is a team effort in getting the appropriate help and resources needed. Because of that, the psychological health offices work with not only chaplain offices but also command.

“We work closely with the risk and resiliency team, family programs, chaplains, and leadership,” said Nystrom. “There is no cookie cutter approach to serving Soldiers, so integration of care is key to what all of our teams do and this level of support is invaluable to Soldiers and their families.”

The psychological health office can also positively impact individual and unit readiness.

“Having a psychological health office can improve a member’s overall quality of life, as well as better work performance,” said Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Jenny Balabuch, command chief, 110th Wing, Michigan Air National Guard. “Readiness and resiliency go hand in hand and our psychological health office can provide encouragement and support when needed.”

“Medical isn’t the only important part of readiness that’s important and we need to consider mental readiness, a great service that our psychological health office can offer us,” said Balabuch.

During the 2020 calendar year, the Michigan National Guard’s psychological health office has received more than 4000 cases, referrals, emails, or phone calls combined with the common trends being depression, sleep issues, relationship concerns, and anxiety. Help is available.

“Air National Guard members could contact their immediate supervisor, wingman, chaplain, DPH, or anyone that they are comfortable talking to,” said Bilski. “If they are specifically seeking brief counseling or other mental health services, they would call (269-969-3309) or email me (sonya.bilski@us.af.mil).”

For those in the Michigan Army National Guard, they may contact Heather Nystrom at 517-481-8319 or heather.l.nystrom2.mil@mail.mil.
Other resources include Military OneSource 1-800-342-9647, Veterans Crisis Line 1-800-273-8255, or the Vet Center 1-877-927-8387.

“More than ever this holiday season it is important to take care of yourself,” said Bilski. “The holidays may be a stressful time for you, your family members and friends and is important to reach out to loved ones who might be struggling with the pressure of the holidays.”

“Take the time you need for yourself and enjoy the holidays,” said Bilski.

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