WASHINGTON — Psychological health is among the military’s most critical and most promising areas of medical treatment, the Defense Department’s assistant secretary for health affairs said today.
Speaking at the Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury’s Warrior Resilience Conference in Arlington, Va., Dr. Jonathan Woodson said nearly 10 years of war has caused an “immense” emotional toll on service members and their families.
“The work is heartbreaking and difficult, and progress is uneven and slow,” he acknowledged to an audience that included health care providers, researchers, officers and noncommissioned officers, and family members.
But, Woodson said, the military has made unprecedented gains in the treatment and prevention of “the invisible wounds of war,” and offers promise for more gains.
Woodson, a brigadier general in the Army Reserve, is a medical doctor and combat veteran who recently assumed his duties as the Pentagon’s top medical official. Since taking the post, he said, he has become even more optimistic about the military’s ability to prevent and treat psychological and emotional disorders in the future.
“My enthusiasm and commitment has only deepened since I’ve been in office and have been able to interact with people on a daily basis who
are committed to solving these problems,” he said. “You’re professional, creative, and fresh, … and working to find answers. And your work is vital to our national security.” Woodson noted the enormity of the effort to tackle psychological issues. “No nation in history has ever put forth more resources and attention to understanding how to treat psychological health,” he said.
The military is increasingly “getting at the heart” of the problem by questioning how to increase resilience in service members before they are deployed for combat, and trying to figure out if resilience can be measured, Woodson said.
“You in this audience and those like you are uncovering some of the keys of what strengthens us,” he said. “Coming at this from the point of view of the individual, how do we strengthen what they already possess?”
The services need a more comprehensive assessment of service members, including their emotional health, Woodson said. That begins, he added, with educating everyone, including families, about the signs that a person may be in distress.
“This begins with watching out for each other,” he said. “It begins with the buddy on your left and the buddy on your right.”
Woodson recounted the case of a soldier with whom he was deployed. While she was happy to communicate with her family over the Internet, he said, she also was becoming increasingly stressed by events back home.
When she learned her young son had been in an accident, “the guilt and stress took a significant toll on her,” even though the boy made a full recovery, Woodson told the audience.
That case, like so many, he said, required the watchful eyes and ears of her battle buddies to see the soldier through it.
“The mutual support we give each other is critical,” Woodson said, adding that clinicians need to support each other, too. “We need all of you, and we need you to be healthy.”
During a question-and-answer session, an Army National Guard colonel noted the increasing suicides in the Army Guard’s ranks and said she is concerned that “we’re not getting at which soldiers actually are at risk.”
Recognition of those at risk is, indeed, critical, Woodson said.
“It will come down to us, as a community, understanding what is the profile of people at risk and acting on our suspicions of someone at risk,” he said. “That’s why we need to train families, as well.
“I don’t see this it as developing tools as much as changing a culture, and educating about this multifaceted approach to mental health,” he added.
One of his challenges as assistant secretary of defense for health affairs is to be a good steward of public funds by determining which programs work well and which don’t to determine priorities, Woodson said, ensuring funding isn’t wasted on programs that are duplicative or ineffective.
U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)