Top Doctor Cites Importance of Psychological Health

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)

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