Sailors facing long wait times for mental health assistance


As the Navy continues to investigate a spate of suicides aboard the USS George Washington, the service says it faces serious issues with access to mental health.

The Navy’s most enlisted sailor says the pandemic has exacerbated mental health issues across the service and there is a severe lack of mental health professionals to care for service members.

“Except for the most egregious cases such as those on the verge of suicide, appointment times are average…

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As the Navy continues to investigate a spate of suicides aboard the USS George Washington, the service says it faces serious issues with access to mental health.

The Navy’s most enlisted sailor says the pandemic has exacerbated mental health issues across the service and there is a severe lack of mental health professionals to care for service members.

“Except for the most egregious cases like those on the verge of suicide, appointment times average five weeks,” Russel Smith told the House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee on Tuesday. “We have managed to do more with less, but few results remain achievable through efficiency gains alone.”

The Navy has been able to build additional capacity through programs such as the Operational Mental Health Outreach Division in San Diego, which facilitates collaboration between medical facilities, support centers and integrated medical resources to provide approximately 100 walk-in visits per week. However, Smith said many of these programs have been expanded to their full potential without additional resources.

The Navy and the nation as a whole are facing a shortage of mental health professionals. Smith said in his written testimony that the Navy still had half of its deployed resilience advisor positions vacant. These positions provide short-term, non-medical advice that has been helpful to sailors aboard ships.

“While it is important to recognize that we have had some success in the fight for mental health by making these adjustments and improvements, very little remains to be achieved through efficiencies alone,” said Smith. “We must also continue our efforts to recruit and retain mental healthcare providers, and recognize as we do that we are competing with the civilian sector for this unique talent.”

The Navy is currently investigating five suicides on the USS George Washington. Three have taken place in the last month.

Smith said he didn’t think the issue was prima facie leadership.

“As a sailor who’s been through multiple drydocks, that’s the hardest thing, way harder than deployment,” he said.

Smith said Newport News is overcrowded because it handles two carriers. The location struggles to provide the quality of life sailors need in terms of mental health care, traffic, parking, child care and other issues.

He added that it is still too early to say what the biggest problems are without completing the investigation.

Smith said chief petty officers need to do a better job of leaning in and being the first caregivers to their sailors.

“They have to be that first compassionate shoulder, the person who says, ‘What’s going on?'” Smith said. “They need to recognize a difference or a change in pattern that lets you know something is different and something needs to be done.”

The military is grappling with some of its highest suicide rates. The Pentagon appointed an Independent Review Board to investigate military suicide and make recommendations.

“It is imperative that we take care of all of our teammates and continue to reinforce that mental health and suicide prevention remain a key priority,” Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin wrote in the memo establishing the committee. . “One death by suicide is one death too many. And suicide rates among our military are still too high. So clearly we still have work to do.

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