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NEWS | Jan. 6, 2015

Mental misconceptions: Psychologist’s mental health perspective

By Senior Airman Austin Harvill 633rd Air Base Wing Public Affairs

It is 7 a.m. on a Monday in 2012. Nancy wakes up, puts on her best business attire, grabs a cup of coffee and heads out the door. Today, she has a day full of client appointments to keep her busy, just as she likes it. As each client leaves, she feels accomplished, but there is something missing. There are too many clients, and none of them understand how they got to her office.

Nancy works as a psychologist, and she feels like there must be a better way to help clients before they ever need to see her. She decides to search for other like-minded professionals and discovers they all work for the same company.

The United States Air Force.

"A lot of people suspect military doctors only join to help pay bills or schooling before they eventually leave for private practice," explains U.S. Air Force Capt. Nancy DeLaney, 633rd Medical Operations Squadron psychologist. "There are people out there who joined because of what the Air Force is doing, and I think a lot of people don't really understand what that is."

DeLaney left her high-paying position in Louisville, Kentucky, to join the Air Force in because she saw something no other organization had - the intent to prevent mental health issues, and provide care whenever necessary as the norm.

"Most civilian agencies do not have any real focus on mental health. The military is one of the only organizations with a dedicated mental health team, which is a huge departure from the private sector," said DeLaney. "Service members can schedule mental health appointments during work hours, and services can be tailored to fit the needs of their particular diagnosis.

They can walk through our doors and see someone, and no one would ever find out most of the time.  If they have a need for a higher level of care, the Air Force community will wrap around them and get them the care they need.  You won't find that anywhere else."

In her old job, DeLaney would suggest stress-relieving techniques to her clients, but this almost always took place after they had reached their limit. Now, she has a chance to show people the preventative steps to take before they ever step foot in her office.

"Our prevention measures are second to none, if you ask me," said DeLaney. "We pursue community mental health prevention, which is a fancy way of saying everyone knows what we have available. We don't pinpoint certain individuals or offices, because as a culture we have taken the first steps in understanding anyone is susceptible and everyone deserves the same treatment."

Not only does DeLaney believe she can assist in the prevention of mental health issues, but in the event someone does need help, she can get that person everything they need as soon as possible.

"Since the Air Force views mental health as a high priority, we have the opportunity to take someone out of their environment and help them," said DeLaney. "If I had an issue in my last job, I would have to schedule a vacation day or take a sick day just to be seen, and 'oh by the way,' you can bet I wasn't getting paid that day.

Here, people are encouraged to call a timeout. We can prescribe an hour of breathing exercises. We can have counseling sessions in the middle of the week. As professionals, we can help those people immediately, not just when it is the most convenient for the work schedule."

When clients do come in, DeLaney knows there is even more opportunity for success.

"The first thing I tell patients is they are my clients," said DeLaney. "These people are people, just like everyone else, they aren't broken. Someone with a broken arm doesn't need to be 'fixed,' they just need to heal. Mental health issues are the same, and I want people to know that."

In the office, DeLaney has a chance to express those sentiments because she knows she has an extended period of time with her clients.

"We can't fix in a week something that took years to build and that is okay," she said. "These people aren't losing money by sitting in my chair; in fact they are probably going to be better off in their career because of it. I can help them get to the places they need to go, because both of us have the time to make that happen."

At the end of the day, all of this healing and opportunity has the potential to help someone improve their life exponentially, said DeLaney.  She believes being part of another person's life journey, and walking with them in a time of difficulty, is truly an honor. 

"I think one of the greatest aspects of Air Force mental health has to be the community," said DeLaney. "Outside of this Air Force, the confidentiality, culture, perception, treatment, prevention - all of it - surrounding mental health can be daunting. Inside our counseling sessions, within the walls of our clinic, people are given a chance to heal. People have the opportunity to be themselves and return to a healthy state.  I have navigated that journey with a number of clients and watched them reclaim their lives after suffering alone for too long.  That type of success is beyond rewarding and is why nothing could make me leave this Air Force family."