Holiday colors: red, white, green and ... blue?

  • Published
  • By Capt. Ginger Pezent
  • 81st Medical Group mental health
With winter and the holiday season just around the corner, it's a good time to be reminded that not everyone finds this time of year as joyful as others. In fact, we find that people typically experience the largest increase in stress and depressive symptoms between the months of November and January.

Although military personnel and their families are generally incredibly good at rolling with the stressors associated with high-stress jobs and frequent moves typical of military life, enduring the shorter daylight hours and the holiday season far from our family and friends back home can sometimes be challenging for the best of us. Because untreated depression puts us at increased risk for suicide, it becomes even more important this time of year to ensure we're taking care of ourselves and those around us.

Research shows that the majority of Airmen who have died from suicide since 2009 were not seen in a mental health clinic in the year prior to their death. This statistic really highlights how important it is for friends, family, leaders and peers to be educated, remain alert for warning signs of distress and, most importantly, be willing to ask the tough questions when there's a concern that someone is depressed or having suicidal thoughts.

You may be asking yourself, "How would I know if someone needs help when I'm not an expert in mental health?" Fortunately, the answer is simple and you already know how to do it - just listen!

For supervisors, that means taking the time to really get to know your people, listen to their concerns and stay alert to changes in their demeanor or work performance. Do you know who is having marital or financial problems? Is your unaccompanied Airman having trouble adjusting or feeling lonely this holiday season? Your people are key to getting your mission completed so be sure you're taking care of them. For family, friends and peers, just strengthen those relationships and be there.

Yes, we always hope that people have the strength to seek help for themselves when needed, but sometimes that little bit of encouragement from someone who cares can make the difference. You may also be able to notice those signs of distress even when the person isn't able or willing to see it for themselves. Remember, untreated depression is the leading cause of suicides and all of the suicide prevention training and brochures in the world won't help if we don't know our people - this is what truly being a good wingman is all about.

To those who are already doing a great job of taking care of others, don't forget to take care of yourselves as well! It can be easy to get so consumed with work and taking care of everyone else that we sometimes neglect to do the things that help keep ourselves resilient. Don't be an island. Be willing to open up to others and seek help when you're not feeling like yourself. Sure, everyone has days here and there when they feel a little "blue," but if you or someone you know is experiencing a prolonged period of sadness that interferes with things such as your sleep, appetite, concentration and energy level, please seek professional help.

Fortunately, depression is an illness that is highly treatable. But like many illnesses, early intervention is key! It's important to take action early and seek help because prolonged untreated depression puts you at increased risk for suicide. If you had a broken leg, you wouldn't try to "tough it out" instead of going to the doctor to have it treated, would you? Depression and other mental health issues are no different.

And just like a broken leg, getting help early can help prevent more damage that could have lasting negative effects.

Although people often cite concern about career impact as a reason for not seeking mental health services, the truth is the majority of military members who take advantage of mental health treatment never experience any negative career ramifications. In fact, the Air Force views help-seeking behavior as a sign of strength. As Airmen, we are charged to always work toward strong mental, physical, social and spiritual fitness in order to withstand, recover and grow in the face of stressors.

Responsible wingmen should use all the resources at their disposal to maintain optimal physical and psychological mission readiness. If you or someone you know is experiencing depression or suicidal thoughts, give one of your helping agencies a call. You can reach the mental health clinic at 676-6452 between 7:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m., and by calling the command post at 676-9920 or 112 after hours. The chapel can be reached at 676-6441 or 676-9920 after hours.