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Department of Defense looks at ‘first-of-its-kind’ health and wellness program

The Pentagon plans to hire 2,000 health professionals to address a wide range of health issues, from suicide and dangerous behavior to social determinants of health.

The Pentagon is getting serious about workplace wellness, with plans to create a “first-of-its-kind” mental health program.

Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks said the Department of Defense is seeking a department of about 2,000 health care personnel to deal with a wide range of issues, from suicide to social determinants of health.

“It could be on financial stability; it could be about food security; it can be about relationship issues,” she said during a recent Washington Post online event. “All the factors that cause stress and harmful behavior, including suicide.”

“We’re pretty confident that it’s a very science-based approach that we’re using,” she added. “This is the largest effort like this … that’s ever existed on an unprecedented scale … This prevention task force will be the first of its kind, and we’re going to do it right here in the U.S. military because this is what we owe our people and their families.”

While a report issued by the DoD in October indicated that suicides in the military dropped by 15% from 2020 to 2021, the military is not immune to the mental health crisis affecting the country, seen in rising rates of substance abuse , family stress and other harmful behaviors. Programs like REACH (Resources Exist, Asking Can Help) and CALM (Counseling Access to Lethal Means education) aim to help service members and health professionals address these issues, but the DoD now wants to establish a dedicated workforce.

Some resources feature digital health and telehealth technology, designed to give service members and their families on-demand access to resources, including healthcare professionals, through mHealth apps and virtual visits. Those access points are designed to deal with the stigma of “being seen” as needing help.

“We have a number of initiatives going on now to make sure we remove that stigma, not only that it’s not … bad to seek help, if you want, for your behavior, for your mental health, but actually that it’s a sign of strength,” Hicks said.

This includes addressing thoughts of suicide and lethal violence.

“We know, and it’s well documented, that if we can create some time and space between that idea, that idea of ​​concern about … possibly committing suicide and those lethal means — of course, firearms are the most important, but also medication – if we can create that time and space, create some safety, then it reduces the likelihood of suicide,” she added.

Eric Wicklund is the Innovation and Technology Editor for HealthLeaders.

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