Senior Airman Augustine Thompson-Brown is a 35th Medical Operations Squadron mental health technician at Misawa Air Base, Japan. Thompson-Brown spent most of her life homeless before joining the Air Force and shares her story to inspire others to conquer their own difficulties. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Jordyn Fetter)

The Air Force says identifying mental-health concerns early and executing the appropriate referral are at the core of its new annual Mental Health Assessment (MHA) initiative.

The new MHA is required by the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act (now 10 U.S. Code, section 1074n) and the Air Force is implementing the new requirement as part of the new DoD Periodic Health Assessment (PHA) — on different timelines than the other services — but no later than Sept 30, 2017, according to Maj. Donald Michael, chief of force health management programs, Air Force Medical Support Agency.

According to Michael, annual MHAs will begin July 31, 2017, for active duty at Air Force Medical Treatment Facilities with an aim to improve overall medical readiness. The annual MHA for members of the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve is expected to begin in August.

The Air Force is making the process routine for everyone and contends that by reducing the stigma associated with seeking mental health care — the MHA, according to Michael, will, “Foster a culture of support in the provision of mental health care.”

“There is ample evidence to indicate that service members perceive a stigma exists when seeking mental health care,” Michael says. “This is a serious issue that might prevent some Airmen from receiving much-needed care. To that end, the Air Force is committed to decreasing the perception of MH stigma and has launched a number of initiatives over the years to address this concern.”

He cites instances where the Air Force consulted with behavior scientists to decrease barriers in seeking care while also working with the Chaplain Corps to provide training in suicide screening and early detection, as well as integrated operational support initiatives to position providers in high stress units to decrease stigma, prevent severe problems and enhance mission readiness.

During annual MHA, airmen will be asked the same established DoD questions they see on pre and post-deployment health screenings. Subsequently, airmen will speak to a trained healthcare provider or licensed mental health professional to complete the person-to-person component as part of the assessment.

Most flight personnel will meet health providers face-to-face, while non-flight personnel will complete portions of the assessment over the phone. Michael says privacy is integrated into all patient care and contact.

“Patient privacy is a fundamental responsibility the Air Force Medical Service takes very seriously,” Michael says. “The delivery of trusted care and full spectrum medical readiness are primary focus areas for the Air Force medical service.”

Air Force service members (active duty, Air National Guard, and Air Force Reserve) have been completing other aspects of the DoD PHA for several months now.

Michael says activation of the annual MHA provider interview requirement is the last step in full Air Force implementation of the DoD PHA.  Once this requirement is activated (on the Active Duty and Air Reserve target dates) any personnel completing the online PHA self-assessment will require the person-to-person MHA interview with a medical provider. This screening process will help to identify MH issues that may need more extensive face-to-face follow-up.

The Air Force is currently in the process of ensuring transfer of PHA questionnaires between the services for airmen stationed at bases with military treatment facilities belonging to other services.

 

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