News: Resilience in the face of adversity
Story by Christina McCann
If you're a part of the Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson community, you’ve probably heard about ‘resiliency’ – the word has been used often for the last few years, by the Army and the Air Force alike. Resiliency is critical – but how do you go about building it?
The Mental Health Flight on JBER is equipped to help anyone with base access to become more resilient in the face of adversity and challenges in life, whether it's another deployment or a colicky baby.
The resiliency group is a new element of the unit which has been operating since March, said Verna Loosli, an outreach manager with the team.
Air Force Staff Sgt. Robert Szymczak, a mental health technician with the resiliency element, said outreach has always been important for the mental health flight, but the new resiliency organization helps synchronize the flight’s different elements to offer the best care possible.
“Our mental heath capabilities have become much more robust recently,” Szymczak said, with their staff nearly doubled.
Jennifer Frysz, also an outreach manager with the element, said after 10 years at war, there has been more need for treatment – but there has also been decreasing stigma for seeking help, and the strength mechanisms that people use are becoming clearer.
“When people are faced with adversity, some people don't tap into the strength that they have,” said Frysz. “We try to help them realize what they have and tap into it, and we try to make it consistent – before and after deployment, to ensure we’re really helping people out. Resiliency is about the overall bounce-back ability – we remind them of their core strengths and how to use them.”
“When you go through adversity, it’s like an inoculation,” said Loosli. “Just like a vaccine strengthens your immune system, overcoming difficulties makes you stronger.”
“When you have resiliency, then when you're having increased feelings of helplessness, you tend to realize what adjustments you can make to help yourself and your family.
“After multiple deployments for example, you remember from last time what skills worked, and what strengths you have, and how to enhance areas you’re not sure of. Then, next time, you have those stronger points.”
While many people think of a bouncing ball as the image of resiliency, Frysz said she thinks of a buoy in the ocean. “You have your ups and downs, but you continue to float.”
The idea is to not just be treading water, however – but to be confident in the ability to float.
Szymczak stressed that while people have coping mechanisms, not all of them are healthy.
“Some people self-medicate with drugs or alcohol,” he said. “Some take out their stress on a wife or their children. The resiliency programs are about healthy ways to cope.”
The mental health flight offers a number of classes geared toward different aspects of life, from stress management and sleep hygiene to relationship skills, parenting and support groups for those with traumatic brain injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder.
“We know that there are relationship struggles and family things going on,” said Frysz, noting those problems often play into people having difficulty coping.
“There are single people out there just trying to keep a support system, people having suicidal thoughts – these classes are designed to help remind people that they have the ability to deal with these things,” she said.
The classes are not just briefings with slides, the team stressed.
“They’re non-judgmental groups where people can express and learn,”Frysz said. “People realize that what they’re feeling is normal – there are a lot of people nodding in agreement, usually, there’s a sense of acknowledgment and camaraderie.”
“We’re an all-volunteer force," said Szymczak. “It’s not really a surprise to anyone to be on back-to-back deployments. The military knows that (the operational tempo) is hard on people and they want to support their people and help. But people must avail themselves of that help.”
He noted that there are countless resources for help available, from chaplains and counselors to Military One Source, civilian clergy and veteran care centers.
“We embrace all kinds of help,” Szymczak said. “We don’t care where people get help, as long as they get help.”
And though the military is in the longest war in American history, there has been some benefit.
“Because we have this time behind us,’ said Loosli, “the military has resources and there’s a lot of science as far as what works. What makes people successful at dealing with things? What are the stressors? So we’re not shooting in the dark with these classes – we’re guided by statistics, as far as what kind of classes and what will help.”
“We have lots of confidence in what we bring to the table – the question is just how to get other people to the table.”
To be resilient, Frysz said, “you have to look at what you have, you see what you need, and you build on what you need more of.
“When you’re aware of your weaknesses, you can ask for help and bring them to a level you can manage.”
And while there is still some stigma in the military about seeking help, the team was quick to point out that it’s undeserved.
“You never hear the success stories,” said Szymczak. “You only hear about the rare cases when something bad happens, which is usually when someone does something (illegal) or they’re separated because of something else.”
He mentioned that there are many cases in which even service members with high-level security clearances seek help and continue in their jobs, and stressed that getting assistance is encouraged, not punished.
The resiliency team often does “walkabouts” in which they visit units just to visit the troops and say hello, she said.
The outreach is a major part of their jobs, said Frysz.
“When we’re walking around, asking how people are doing, their faces light up,” she said. “There’s a sense of relaxation, there’s humor.
“We’re not there to preach – just to say hey. You never know what people are dealing with. And it’s not just for us - we encourage people to ask each other how things are going.”
Frysz also stressed that commanders can have a lot of impact on their troops.
“When road conditions are bad, for example, and a commander says ‘Take your time coming in, be safe’ – that helps with resiliency,” she said.
Often, it just takes people knowing that they’re cared about. “Being a good battle buddy or wingman builds resiliency. We all have the tools,” Frysz said.