Meeting the mental health needs of the military

Colonel Clare Bennett, Chief Mental Health Officer, Defence Health Directorate & Director Integrated Wellness of the New Zealand Defence Force, reports on the Military Issues Work Group match held in 2019.

The Military Issues Work Group members discussed leadership challenges they face and the efforts and decisions they make to address them in order to meet the mental health needs of active duty service members, veterans, and their families in each country.

The focus was on how participants solve challenges related to access to mental health care, and how they ensure accountability for the delivery of the highest quality mental health care or services to military members, veterans, and their families.

Fourteen people attended representing Germany, New Zealand, The Netherlands and the U.S.

Each country gave background about current mental health work and issues. Of particular interest is the fact that the New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) will conduct a health and wellbeing survey in October, which will provide information on progress made since the last survey (2016) to include attitudes towards health-seeking, barriers to care, relationships, and burnout among others. New Zealand is also working on developing a peer support program, with the goal of reducing the stigma of mental health care.

Each country spoke to access and barriers to mental health services.

Topics of interest for potential collaboration between work group members were brought forth and discussed. They are as follows:

  • children’s mental health needs
  • women in the military
  • peacekeeping missions and how they affect mental health
  • PTSD prevalence and incidence (& cultural influence)
  • substance use disorders comparison (incidence/prevalence, policies, and cultural influence)
  • integration of mental health support (chaplains, peer support, personnel, etc)/holistic care vs other
  • how does active duty (DoD) classification vs veteran impact access to care
  • common barriers to care/stigma with recommendations
  • how does the quality of care get measured in military health systems
  • complementary and alternative medicine adjunct to mental health treatment in military health system (MHS)
  • benefits/role of peer support in MHS for mental health
  • clinical treatment standards for mental health conditions (meds, therapy, etc.)
  • leadership
  • relationship between mental health providers and leadership (confidentiality aspects)
  • review of most relevant teletherapy resources.

Collaborative project planning

After in-depth discussions of the aforementioned topics, three were selected. These topics were sent to all group members for voting in order to determine the next collaborative project. They are as follows:

  1. Compare how culture impacts legal and illegal substance misuse in each country’s military.
  2. How does each country’s military mental health approach leverage professionals (to include peer supports) across the community to support service members and the mission?
  3. How does the quality of mental health care get measured in each country’s healthcare system that serves the military?

Work on Option two is now being progressed as a collaborative project through quarterly video conference meetings. 

Membership of this group enables the NZDF to utilise the networks and learnings gained through involvement with IIMHL for the development of NZDF mental health practice (policy and tools for maintaining positive mental health), impacting on our diverse workforce population spanning prevention and care. 

The future

NZDF involvement with this forum strengthens our ability to connect to and leverage contemporary research and programmes of work relevant to military and veteran mental health.  There are considerable opportunities for the NZDF to access research, resources and support through the relationships that continue to be developed through this forum. 

Outputs from the meeting contribute to DHD initiatives that support the Enduring Wellness strategic objective of the Health Strategy and programmes of work in the Mental Health strategy to:

  • develop collaborative partnerships
  • establish a coordinated approach to mental health research
  • develop a comprehensive mental health framework, and
  • enhance support for at-risk groups.

Photo: attendees of the match visited the National Museum of Health and Medicine.