Better Mental Healthcare in the US Navy

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The suicide rate in the Navy is climbing and the mental health care provided to Sailors is not at all what it should be. I am petitioning the MCPON to make changes throughout the US Navy so that us Sailors receive better quality of mental health care. If you have a story you would like to share I highly encourage and would appreciate it so much if you would share it here. I have shared my personal petition letter and story below. 

Master Chief and whomever else this may concern,

I am Petty Officer Rachel Oswalt. I am an Aviation Electronics Technician in the United States Navy and have served on active duty for 4 years so far. I know that suicide and mental health are major concerns of the Navy currently and I am writing this to you as a plea to make the mental health services provided to Sailors better. My story is one of many other stories involving mistreatment, invalidation, and lack of concern for my own personal mental health and I want to share it with you.

I have dealt with depression and anxiety for a couple of years. It worsened when I joined the Navy and I sought help (I believe) in 2016 initially through my primary care manager at the Naval Health Clinic Oak Harbor. My primary care manager at the time had told me that I could not be a part of the Navy with anxiety, prescribed me a sedative, and referred me to behavioral health.  After seeing the psychologist at behavioral health for a few sessions she had informed me that I could not be medicated for my anxiety while in therapy and that I had to pick one option. My physical anxiety symptoms were so bad at the time therapy was not helping and I self-referred to mental health on base. After filling out the ten-page intake form, waiting a few days for my initial screening, then finally being screened, I was set up with a therapist for counseling as well as a psychiatrist for medication. The main issue was that I would not be able to see the therapist for about two weeks and I needed help right then. No, I was not going to kill myself, but it was extremely hard to function day-to-day. The issue was that I have high functioning anxiety so no one knew what I was struggling with except a few people. I tried to get a referral off base to be seen sooner and was immediately shut down by mental health and told I had to be seen there, and also told that out in town had longer wait times. So I waited, the two weeks, that felt like the longest two weeks of my life. On the day of my appointment, I received a call from mental health telling me that my therapist had called in sick and that it would be another week. For someone dealing with what I was dealing with that was the most disappointing call I could have received. I felt like my mental health was not a priority.

When I finally got around to my appointment, my therapist threw a bunch of coping mechanisms at me without hearing really anything from me other than that I had anxiety and depression and sent me on my way.  I was not comfortable with her and felt that seeing her was a waste of my time, so I stopped seeing her. I have kept seeing my psychiatrist, however.

Fast forward to my time at my current command, my depression and anxiety have worsened, and worsen each time I go on deployments. I informed my psychiatrist who suggested that I start therapy again (he suggested this before I left on my last deployment). When I arrived back home in August 2019 my depression was probably the worst it has ever been. I needed help so badly, and not help from someone on the other side of the phone and not help from someone I would talk to once and never talk to again, I needed a therapist who I felt comfortable with, who would be there to follow up with, and would be able to help me deal with everything I was feeling. So I called mental health and asked them to see another therapist other than the one I was placed with last time. Besides being booked out for an entire month, they said I had to see the same therapist one more time before I could request someone else. Once again, I felt like my needs and my mental health were not a priority. I called fleet and family to see a therapist there, they were also booked out for a month. I called military one source, they referred me back to mental health on base. So finally I called back to mental health and asked for a referral out in town. Their first response was that out in town would probably have a wait of up to 3 weeks. They did not even attempt to provide me with any other resources that could provide me with the help that I needed, the only options were to wait one month to see someone I was not comfortable with or nothing, the person on the other end of the phone at mental health did not care.

 I was able to find a facility that was able to see me immediately in Lynnwood, WA the only issue was the referral. So I scheduled an appointment with the flight doctor for my squadron and he wrote a referral for me directly to the clinic that I wanted to be seen at out in town. I called Tricare to follow up on my referral and they told me to follow up with the clinic that I wanted to be seen at and the clinic told me that I could start therapy sessions as long as the referral was on its way. I had my first therapy session on Friday, Sep. 20, 2019.  I loved my therapist, I felt that she listened to me, we connected, and I was really looking forward to finally getting the help I have needed for a long time. Unfortunately on Sep. 24, 2019 I received a call from mental health (on base) telling me that the referral from the flight doctor was sent over to mental health on base and that I cannot go out in town without going through their screening process and out in town is approved on a case by case basis. That process involves filling out the intake form on base, setting up a screening appointment which could take a week to two weeks, and then waiting to hear back from a department head about whether or not I would be approved. More waiting for something that I feel should be more of an immediate priority. So I am back to square one, hoping that my mental health doesn’t deteriorate anymore because I cannot get the help that I need.

More recently at my last periodic health assessment, I addressed the fact that squadrons are not doing pre and post-deployment health screenings, and I addressed my own personal mental health issues. These issues were brushed to the side, and even though I mentioned that I deal with depression and suicidal thoughts on deployment and do not know how to cope, I was told that I am still deployable and that my mental health issues just lower my quality of life.

This process to me is absolutely ridiculous. We have a mental health facility at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island who makes people feel like their health is not a priority. I should be able to feel 100% comfortable with my therapist on the first visit, and I should not be forced to see a therapist that I am not comfortable with because of a “process”. I should not have to wait an entire month to get help when I feel like I am drowning. There are tons of other Sailors like myself who have experienced similar if not worse situations than me throughout the Navy. There are tons of Sailors who are not getting the help they need because of the poor quality of care and I would not be doing my part for them or for myself if I did not speak up.

What I hope to gain from this is a better system for Sailors with mental health issues. If appointments are not available on base within a week, referrals out in town should be authorized without it being a hassle. We should not have to be the point of suicide for our mental health to matter. And quite frankly, the sense of trust is lost to even inform a facility like that of suicidal thoughts when one is constantly let down. I hope that if a Sailor is uncomfortable with a therapist, that switching to another therapist becomes an easier process. Being comfortable with the therapist that an individual sees is so extremely important to the healing process. And lastly, I hope that mental health facilities across the Navy understand that us Sailors dealing with unseen illnesses do matter, and the way they speak to us on the phone, even if they don’t try to sound rude or condescending can be the difference between healing or giving up. I strongly believe that if mental health services were better that maybe the suicide rate in the Navy would not be as high. I cannot say that for sure, but I do know that it would be a step in the right direction.

Thank you so much for your time.

Very Respectfully,

AT2(AW) Oswalt, Rachel (USN)