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JBSA chaplains, counselors utilize technology to provide counsel and guidance during pandemic

By David DeKunder | 502nd Air Base Wing Public Affairs | April 16, 2020

JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO, Texas —

Mental health specialists, chaplains and counselors throughout Joint Base San Antonio are utilizing technology and finding resourceful ways to keep in touch with their clients who seek counseling and guidance during this time of social distancing.

With restrictions put into place at JBSA in response to COVID-19 that has limited in-person contact at installation facilities, mental health specialists, chaplains and counselors are using teleconferencing and social platforms to communicate with their clients who still seek counseling during the pandemic.

Chaplain (Maj.) Mark Smith, Family Life Chaplain at the Vogel Resiliency Center at JBSA-Fort Sam Houston, said by utilizing teleconferencing and videoconferencing with his clients, he can keep attuned to the emotional struggles they are going through as they practice social distancing and work from home to stay safe.

Smith said the combination of social distancing and being at home can take an emotional toll on people who are dealing with stress from work, in their personal life or family relationships.

“For some people, the additional stress has intensified areas of their lives where they were already struggling and then for others, it has added a new struggle that they weren’t facing,” Smith said.

Also, he said people can experience feelings of isolation as they are separated from certain family members, friends or co-workers and lack the community support to which they are accustomed. He emphasized that it is one’s community that often provides the strength, encouragement and assistance a person needs to deal with life’s challenges.

He said parents, especially, face a very tough balancing act of educating and homeschooling their children, who are now out of school indefinitely as campuses have shut down to prevent the spread of COVID-19. In addition, parents still have to provide meals, oversight and attention for their children who are now home all the time.

“People are trying to manage their lives,” Smith said. “They are trying to telework and homeschool their kids. I hear comments frequently from people that they are trying to adjust to having their kids at home, having to provide additional meals and helping the kids do their homework.”

Smith said people are now having to deal with work and family stressors in one location – home.

“I would think the ability to keep home stress and work stress separated is convoluted because both are now happening at the same location,” he said. “I think part of the increased challenged right now is people don’t have that space for a transition from work to home and vice versa.”

Smith said as a Family Life Chaplain he can provide help to JBSA members in coping with their feelings both emotionally and spiritually.

“We provide that opportunity to share their struggle with another person,” Smith said. “Then we can explore their coping mechanisms and provide them with resources they can access and engage in so that they are responding to their challenges in a way that is healthy and life-producing.

“The other aspect I get to provide is the religious support through prayer and encouragement that many people often desire,” Smith added.

Smith is available for counseling from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday-Friday. To set up an appointment, call 210-221-9445 or email mark.a.smith1143.mil@mail.mil.

At Brooke Army Medical Center, hospital staff members are providing counseling to patients and clients, in person and through telephone and video teleconferencing.

Chaplain (Capt.) Joe Sherwin, BAMC chaplain clinician, said BAMC chaplains, including himself, are still conducting in-person meetings with clients and patients in a conference room by adhering to social distancing procedures, spreading people six feet apart, as well as utilizing proper hygiene techniques and the appropriate personal protective equipment.

Chaplains are also utilizing telephonic and video teleconferencing platforms to provide counseling when face-to-face meetings are not feasible or available.

BAMC is ramping up and increasing its technological tools to reach out to more clients who need help.

Capt. Collin Mullins, BAMC outpatient behavioral health senior postdoctoral psychology resident, said BAMC behavioral health specialists and counselors are utilizing the web and video conferencing platforms, including Adobe Connect and other secure applications.

“Behavioral health has been utilizing video teleconferencing for a while,” Mullins said. “This global pandemic has increased the awareness of this known capability. So, COVID-19 has made us be more creative in using this known capability and it has pushed us to expand this service to serve the folks who are in need.”

BAMC has a behavioral health support line people can call that is staffed by a licensed counselor or a graduate-level provider they can talk to from 7:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., Monday-Friday. The helpline numbers are 210-539-9567 or 210-539-9565.

Mullins said the behavioral health support line provides counseling for active duty, military family members, dependents, retirees, JBSA members and BAMC employees.

“By utilizing the behavioral health support line, people will be provided with a lot of problem-solving and relaxation techniques and a lot of education to be able to deal with stress and anxiety,” Mullins said.

People who need immediate help can call 911 or 1-800-273-TALK (8255) anytime and they will be connected to a professional counselor.

During this time of COVID-19, Sherwin said chaplains like himself can help provide guidance and counsel to people experiencing a wide range of emotions.

“These are unparalleled times with heightened emotions and anxieties,” Sherwin said. “We want to enable people to normalize and assess their emotions, helping them process and make meaning out of their current situation. It is vital to their overall health. We are thinking holistically – mentally, emotionally, physically, spiritually – to assist them in making meaning out of what they are experiencing. We enable them to remain resilient and healthy.”

Sherwin emphasizes the need for faith in helping people get through a trying time.

“As chaplains, we appreciate the unique times we are in and we believe that one of the ways that people cope during times of crisis is to lean upon their faith, which gives them strength and hope regardless of their circumstances,” Sherwin said. “Faith keeps people connected with not only to their God, but also keeps them connected with one another.  Remaining connected during these times of struggle is essential.  Social distancing does not mean social disconnection.”

Sherwin said BAMC chaplains are utilizing technology to assist people in maintaining their faith connections by broadcasting messages of hope and encouragement that allows them to exercise spiritual disciplines and participate in elements of their faith. These faith messages can be found on channels 59 and 60 at BAMC and on the JBSA Garrison Chaplains Office Facebook page.

JBSA members who are looking for classes about financial counseling and wellness can do so through the Vogel Resiliency Center, which is offering classes on those topics through social platforms.

Geremy Chavez, VRC personal financial counselor, is conducting virtual financial counseling sessions. For more information, contact Chavez at 210-243-3752 or by email at PFC2.JBSA.USAF@zeiders.com. Chavez serves active-duty, Guard, Reserve, Gold Star families and recently retired military up to six months out of service.

The Army Wellness Center, also located at VRC, is holding weekly online classes on Facebook via Zoom. The wellness center can be found on Facebook with the keywords, “JBSA Army Wellness Center,” or at https://www.facebook.com/JBSAAWC/. For more information, call the Army Wellness Center at 210-539-1254.

Information on services and programs at VRC can be found at https://www.jbsa.mil/Resources/Resiliency/Vogel-Resiliency-Center/.

VRC Director Dr. Patricia Ruiz said the VRC continues to offer services and programs via social platforms in an effort to stay connected with the JBSA community. 

“Now more than ever, our connection to self and others is extremely important,” Ruiz said.