By Mary Doyle, Fort Meade Public Affairs Office
Fort Meade focus on resilient mental health during the holiday season
No matter what holiday you celebrate, whether it’s Christmas, Hanukah, Kwanza or something else, this season can be particularly stressful. When a worldwide pandemic and the isolation amid financial burdens associated with it are added to the mix, these days and weeks can feel like a perfect storm for the kinds of stressors that can lead to depression and other difficult mental health challenges.
To respond to that perfect storm, Fort Meade held a virtual Resiliency Town Hall and invited experts from Fort Meade and the surrounding community to provide some helpful suggestions.
“We wanted to provide a good discussion that let our communities know what they are feeling is not abnormal,” said Chad Jones, Fort Meade Public Affairs Officer and host of the program. “We wanted to make them aware of tools and resources they could rely on to help them through this time. We know ideations and harmful behaviors are on the uptick every holiday season, and now we are in the middle of COVID, which already stressed a lot of us out to the max.”
The virtual town hall featured advice and suggested coping measures from several experts in the region including Maj. Amy Brzuchalski, Chief of Behavioral Health and Fort Meade’s new Installation Director of Psychological Health; Dr. Christy Culpepper, Supervising Psychologist for Family and Child Therapy, Kennedy Kreiger Institute; and, Catherine Gray, Director of the Anne Arundel County Mental Health Agency.
“What a time to be alive,” said Brzuchalski. “No one is exempt from the stressors and the changes to our daily life, to our roles, to the way we do business that has been brought on by this global pandemic. Across the board we are seeing a noticeable upswing in general distress, substance abuse, domestic abuse and suicide among our service members and our families.”
According to Catherine Gray, the pressures associated with the pandemic are impacting people who may have never faced a situation where they felt the need to seek out help.
“These are people who are not known to our systems,” said Gray. “But [because of] the level of anxiety and depression due to the pandemic and the isolation … our numbers of calls to our crisis line have skyrocketed and a lot of them are people we aren’t familiar with.”
Dr. Culpepper agrees that the demographics for those needing help cross all ages, genders and ethnicities. “We are seeing this with all of our kids,” said Culpepper. “This is definitely something that is impacting our entire community.”
Behavior that may have once been considered typical ‘acting-out’ from children and teenagers could be amplified by feelings of loneliness and stress since so many children are working in isolation.
“Even kids who thought they would enjoy doing things online are now saying this has been going on a long time,” said Culpepper. “They are feeling isolated, just like we’re feeling isolated. This can lead to outbursts that are coming from an emotional place.”
Children are demonstrating their stress and isolation in a number of ways. Some may be lethargic and want to stay in bed. “On the other hand, we have kids that have all the energy,” said Culpepper. “They aren’t able to get those energy outbursts out because they aren’t doing all of the things they used to do.”
For some, establishing a routine and sticking to it can help children and teens feel more in control of their situation. “We need to be flexible … we are all in this boat together. We need to learn how to be gentle with ourselves,” said Culpepper.
“We have to be empathetic,” said Brzuchalski. “If you have a [service member] who has never gotten in trouble, and now things are happening, it’s pretty clear what’s going on.” She says, instead of writing them off or considering discipline, it’s important speak to them to see if they need help.
Many people have anxiety about the stigma associated with getting help in behavioral health. According to Brzuchalski, many of the issues that are causing stress, like financial problems, work related stressors or family dynamics, may not be things that require seeking behavioral health assistance.
“The Army Wellness Center, Chaplains, Army Community Service, Fleet and Family Services and (Army) One Source – all of these other [services] offer stress management,” said Brzuchalski. “Relaxation techniques, anger management, financial counseling … no matter what is going on in your life, there are these resources that do not make it to your medical record.”
In addition to the traditional military services, Fort Meade residents and anyone living in Anne Arundel County have access to the county behavioral health services as well. “Seven days a week, 24 hours a day, you can call our Crisis Response System at 410-768-5522 to get help,” said Gray. “You don’t have to be in crisis to call that number. It’s just a good place to start to find out what is available to you.”
Prevention and seeing warning signs early are key, said Brzuchalski. To help enhance the ability to identify when destructive behavior is happening, she and her team have developed a new moniker based on what she calls, “our favorite holiday condiment.”
The letters in G.R.A.V.Y. spell out five helpful tips for keeping mental wellness on track over the holiday. The five tips are to; Grasp how they are feeling, Routine is the key, Awareness of the resources available, Vulnerable to being open, and You be the reason someone smiles.
Gray agrees that reaching out is the right thing to do, saying, “The earlier the intervention, the better the outcome.”
“Commanders need to know your resources,” said Brzuchalski. “Know where you can send your people to get help.”
Jones said, in the planning stages, he had named the event the mental health town hall, but feared the title would prevent some people from watching. He asked the panel, “How can we make this a more honest discussion about mental health?”
Brzuchalski suggested we speak of it in terms of how we are feeling instead of giving it a label. “I only slept 30 minutes last night because I’m anxious,” she said as an example.
Culpepper said, to talk about how you are feeling means being more in touch with your emotions and the way your behavior impacts them. “If you only get 30 minutes of sleep, you’re going to be more irritable,” she said. “We should be able to make those connections.”
“Currently we are going through two life events that have caused a lot of stress on our community -- the Holiday season and COVID,” said Jones. “Today's town hall was a forum for Fort Meade to share the immense resources in the region to include our off-post jurisdictions and medical professionals. We wanted our community to know that it was OK if you are struggling, and more importantly, that you aren't alone. There's a lot of help available.”
Finally, as part of the upcoming opening of the Fort Meade Kuhn Hall Resiliency Center, Dr. Jennifer Crockett from the Kennedy Kreiger Institute and a key member of the Fort Meade Alliance Foundation’s efforts to establish the center, encouraged viewers to search the Ftmeaderesiliency.org website for a complete list of military, veteran, county and state resources for help.
Editor’s note: A video of this Resiliency Town Hall event, along with a list of resources can be found on the Fort Meade Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/FtMeade.