Kirtland Air Force Base isn't much different from the world beyond its gates when it comes to dealing with mental illnesses, a base clinical psychologist says.

Maj. Benjamin Carter told the Journal the most frequent diagnosis on the base is an anxiety disorder.

“It's not a surprise, but I anticipate about anytime in the population in America, about 20% of the population has some form of diagnosable anxiety disorder, and it's no different in the military,” he said.

Leading the way among the anxiety disorders, he said, were post-traumatic stress disorder “or something like panic disorder or generalized anxiety disorder.”

A “close second to that are depressive disorders,” Carter said.

What may differentiate Kirtland and other military bases from the outside world may be the resources and the approaches the Air Force and other military branches use to help active duty personnel cope with their anxiety.

Installation commander Col. David Miller said financial difficulties, marital troubles and the adjustment to being a new parent can often be a source of stress among airmen.

“We offer a variety of financial management courses. Also, through the clinic or the chapel, we offer some marriage counseling,” Miller said. “We've got classes for parenting. For newborn children, we have a Baby 101 that lets people know what to expect and what resources are available.

“There are a lot of resources the military puts into trying to help the individual manage transitions.”

Miller said Kirtland offers a “robust program” for airmen about to separate from military life.

“It could be they're medically retiring early with health issues or with some kind of injury, or they separate after 20-plus years in the service,” he said.

The weeklong program Kirtland offers is called TAPS, or the Transition Assistance Program.

“It's a mandatory program that they participate in to see all of the resources that are available to them as they're transitioning and after transition,” Miller said. “The military recognizes that changing careers, whether it's something you want to do or something you have to, is a significant stressor.”

There are also mandatory programs for airmen who leave the service after a shorter period of time.

“If they did their four-year, six-year stint and are going off to pursue a college degree with a 9/11 bill or something like that, there are still mandatory programs they go to on their transition to make sure the Air Force will do their part to put them on their best footing,” he said.

Carter said the Department of Defense understands that continuing mental health services may be difficult after airmen enter civilian life.

“We have a program that we enroll everyone into that we call the in-transition program, where they are assigned an individual counselor,” he said. “That counselor helps them to arrange all of their mental health care on the civilian side.”

Miller said Kirtland offers services to airmen who are about to deploy and after they return similar to what he experienced when he deployed to Iraq in 2007-08. In many cases, airmen – especially those who recently entered the Air Force – will meet with their commanding officer and first sergeant to find out what services are available to them before they deploy.

Edith Wegner, the violence prevention integrator at Kirtland, said when large groups deploy, airmen are made aware of issues they need to take care of before they leave.

“It may be finances, it may be power of attorney,” she said. “We kind of look at all of the components that are involved with deployment. And we will help you get all of these things done. That way, they are better prepared. When they do leave out the door, they can take care of everything. Their life is more settled.”

And Carter said mental health services are offered during deployment.

“There is a misconception that in a deployed environment, it's just the wild, wild west and there are no resources,” he said. “That's not the case.”

After airmen return, Miller said, there is a cooling off period which often includes a stop at an interim base for debriefing, which includes addressing an airman's mental and physical needs.

“For whatever reason, it's too hard to mutter the words, 'I need help.' We provide a lot of different mechanisms to do that with opportunities online, opportunities one-on-one with people from different agencies asking them a lot of different questions,” Miller said.

PTSD is the mental condition people most often associate with military personnel returning from deployment, especially from combat zones. And Carter said there are signs to look for.

“The first thing that comes to mind is isolation,” he said. “One of the more common symptoms that we see is avoidance of doing things you used to enjoy doing. And that can be the avoidance of crowds when they go to the grocery store, going out to dinner with your friends and loved ones. You find yourself spending more time at home than you are accustomed to; that can be a red flag. Second one is increased anger. There's the sense that everything internally is just a little bit on edge. It's a little bit easier to be triggered for a more extreme emotionally response. It's the response to some of the things internally that we often respond with behaviors to tone that down.”

He said increased alcohol use, especially to help with sleep, could be a red flag. “The answer is not always a counselor. It doesn't have to be a psychologist to speak to. But a universal principle is to take what's inside and getting it outside. It's something that can help with just about every situation.”

Miller said many of the mannerisms are also the same for other stressors, including “if you're going through a divorce or a financial situation.”

Carter acknowledges that may be a reason some airmen are reluctant to seek help because they fear they will be demoted or that it will affect their service in some way.

“If somebody has concerns, they ask, 'If I speak up, what impact will it have on my career? My unit? My co-workers?' Those are very common concerns,” he said. “That's always a concern that we're working on. … Almost every time, we find that their concerns are greater than the reality. … The promise to them is that we'll address any of those concerns.”

Miller believes the concern about making someone else do their work is even more of a factor.

“Sometimes it's not about the individual coming forward and admitting they need help, it's acknowledging that when they seek help, their workload is shifting to someone else,” Miller said. “They'll think, I don't want to take myself out to rest for a while. … If I need to take a knee – which is a military term – it's probably not going to be short-term … When I take a knee, I just shifted my workload responsibilities over to them. … It's almost out of love to people they serve with – they push themselves longer than they should.”

Edith Wegner, the violence prevention integrator at Kirtland, said the Air Force is working to remove the perceived stigma around airmen reporting they have a problem.

And Carter wants airmen “to speak up” if they believe they need help.

“There is a strength in asking for help,” Miller said. “It is a sign of strength to be able to ask for help.”

©2020 the Albuquerque Journal (Albuquerque, N.M.) – Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.