JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-LACKLAND, Texas –
The 960th Cyberspace Wing kicked off National Mental Health Awareness Month by inviting service members, civilians and their families to its inaugural Mental Health and Resiliency Fair at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland May 1 with more than 800 attendees both in-person and virtually.
The fair hosted informational booths from military resource providers to educate service members of the programs available and how they can access resources.
Community providers from the local San Antonio area and nationally were also on-site to educate and market their available services.
Col. Robert Kent, 16th Air Force (Air Forces Cyber) command surgeon, attended the event and said it’s important to focus on mental health and resiliency.
“The open invitation to families and the attendance by numerous resource agencies was a perfect example of how to support one another and build a resilient network of people at the 960th Cyberspace Wing,” Kent said. “I hope to duplicate this event in the future at other locations for 16th Air Force.”
Maj. Kathleen Ball, 854th Combat Operations Squadron deputy division chief of the Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Division, visited the booths and said she was grateful to learn about the variety of resources.
“I was impressed with the number of organizations that attended,” Ball said. “This was a very practical and effective way to inform the wing of the tools available to us as Reserve Citizen Airmen.”
During the Mental Health and Resiliency Fair, the Emmy Award-Winning HBO Documentary, “Ernie and Joe: Crisis Cops,” was screened free of charge to those in attendance.
The documentary follows two former San Antonio Police Department officers in the Mental Health Unit, Ernie Stevens and Joe Smarro, who worked to change the way police respond to mental health calls.
The film showed their daily experiences with people who experienced a mental health crisis.
The officers are nationally known as crisis interventionists, de-escalation specialists and training facilitators in police departments across the nation. Their efforts helped individuals obtain appropriate mental health treatment by diverting them away from jail, if appropriate.
Immediately following the documentary screening, Stevens and Smarro took the stage for an in-person Q&A session with the audience.
“The Resiliency Fair was a tremendous opportunity for our Airmen to hear about a different approach to mental health crisis response,” said Col. Richard Erredge, 960th CW commander. “Ernie and Joe offered their unique perspective that helped our Airmen learn some new skills when they encounter someone in a mental health crisis. I can’t thank them enough for sharing their experiences with us as we continue to find ways to take care of Airmen.”
Closing out the event, Lt. Gen. Timothy Haugh, 16th AF (Air Forces Cyber) commander, discussed the importance of destigmatizing mental health within the military and promoting help-seeking behaviors.
“We have an opportunity to execute leadership in a way that is different than many of our civilian counterparts,” Haugh said. “We can ask people about what their day is like and, based on that response, we can stay and wait for the real answer. Once we know what the real answer is, we can work toward solutions.”
Haugh further discussed with attendees the Air Force initiatives of embedded programs to maintain and strengthen the resiliency of Airmen to include mental health, chaplain services and social support systems.
According to Haugh, 99% of service members who seek mental health will not lose their security clearance.
“If it’s mental health, we can take people to a resource that will help,” he said. “One of our primary objectives is to destigmatize mental health treatment. Many have security clearances, and at different times in our lives, I’m sure somebody has said, ‘If you go to mental health, your career is over.’ We are doing everything we can to destigmatize that because it’s not true.”
Frances Martinez, LCSW, 960th Cyberspace Wing director of Psychological Health, coordinated the event and said the importance of recognizing, destigmatizing and decriminalizing mental health is imperative to the success of the military services.
According to Martinez, suicide rates within the Air Force were on the rise in 2020, with approximately three suicides per week documented.
It is crucial that mental health awareness and support are openly discussed to help decrease suicides and foster appropriate environments to help service members seek the help they need, she said.
“There are too many times that people feel they don’t have any options in a time of crisis, which can lead to detrimental outcomes,” she said. “This is why we hosted this type of event, to continue to spread awareness of mental health and press forward with the destigmatizing efforts.”
“I was extremely impressed by the participation; at what I believe was the largest ever event at JBSA on Mental Health Awareness and Resiliency,” said Kent. “All of our 16th Air Force locations could benefit from this type of collaboration with one another and from local mental health authorities, such as the National Alliance on Mental Health.”
If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, contact the National Suicide Hotline at (800)273-8255, option 1.