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Psychological health director offers new services

  • Published
  • By Maj. Gabe Johnson
  • 162nd Fighter Wing Public Affairs
Arizona Air National Guardsmen deploying overseas, flying MQ-1 Predator combat missions over Southwest Asia, and defending the homeland through air sovereignty alert now have access to full-time mental health services should they need them.

In January, Ms. Diane Schiff, a 25-year licensed clinical social worker, assumed her new role as the 162nd Fighter Wing's director of psychological health (WDPH) at Tucson International Airport. She will work with the 162nd as well as the 214th Reconnaissance Group at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz.

She is one of the first mental health professionals in the Air National Guard and will be among 97 contracted experts slated for ANG units across the country.

Military officials have recognized in recent years a steady increase in post traumatic stress disorder, divorce and suicide among servicemembers. As the only service component without military members in mental health professions, Air National Guard leaders announced last year the creation of new, wing-level positions intended to address these serious trends.

In addition to mental health and non-medical support services, the WDPH will work closely with the Yellow Ribbon program, Air Force suicide prevention programs and the Air Force resiliency program when it is fielded.

"When servicemembers redeploy, they go through a formal and comprehensive transition period when they are reintegrated back into their community whether through Yellow Ribbon events or other similar programs," said Ms. Schiff who previously served four years as a military and family life consultant; a short-term, non-medical counselor traveling to numerous installations around the world.

She understands that Guard members don't have the same type of transition that allows for decompression. "As with the Predator mission, Guardsmen go from a combat situation then leave work and go straight to the dentist or a teacher-parent conference," she said. "This presents Guard members with a very challenging dichotomy - the clashing of two worlds."

She says she's here to help with that transition as well as psychological health issues.

"My primary role will be clinical case management and oversight meaning I deliver and coordinate various psychological health services for Guardsmen to include brief counseling, crisis intervention, referrals to other psychological health professionals, alcohol abuse awareness, outreach, reintegration programs and commander advisement," said Ms. Schiff.

"It's great to be here. It's a great honor to work with you all. This wing seems very close knit. Everyone has been welcoming, helpful and appreciative that I'm here... and that's wonderful. This makes my job that much more enjoyable."

Recent tragedy highlights director's role

Three weeks after Schiff's arrival, the 162nd Fighter Wing suffered the tragic loss of one of its members.

Staff Sgt. John Diehl, a long-time member of the engine shop, died Jan. 28 from complications stemming from his battle with cancer.

A friend and co-worker arrived at Sergeant Diehl's residence to give him a ride to a doctor's appointment that morning and found him on the floor of his home. He immediately called 911 and attempted to stabilize him.

Despite the timely arrival of an ambulance and efforts to save his life, Sergeant Diehl passed away.

"It's a very sad time for the maintenance squadron and the wing as a whole," said Lt. Col. Ken Gavre, 162nd Maintenance Squadron commander. "John was a dedicated aircraft maintainer and a true friend that will be missed by all. His death was such a shock to us because his doctor had cleared him to come back to work. We thought he was doing well. We stopped maintenance for the day and I asked Diane, the chaplain and others to be available for John's section."

Ms. Schiff said she was glad Colonel Gavre was aware of the WPHD program and asked her to assist because the family atmosphere among Guard members makes the loss extremely difficult.

"You guys have such a long history together. Unlike active duty where there is a lot of [moving], Guardsmen have many years together to grow stronger attachments," she said. "Therefore a tragedy like this can be felt most acutely."

"I was particularly concerned about friends who were closest to him. I did work with groups on Friday and we came up with a strategy that would allow this to unfold and encourage people to process it rather than stuffing it away and minimizing it."

Vanishing stigma of mental health issues

According to TriWest Healthcare Alliance, many servicemembers share a perception that mental health treatment could cause a loss in confidence in their abilities among fellow members. It's a perceived barrier that the military continues to overcome.

"I have noticed the stigma associated with mental health issues is decreasing. It's my hope that as I spend time with people on base they will feel more comfortable with me and initiate services. The negative, preconceived ideas about seeking help will diminish and people will say, 'that wasn't so bad.' I want them to feel at ease talking to me, and I'm committed to finding ways to allow this to happen," Schiff said.

The top ethical code in Ms. Schiff's profession is confidentiality above all else, she said.

"I work with commanders, first sergeants, chaplains and others on cases within the bounds of confidentiality," she said. "Then I manage that case. I still follow them if they are seeing a therapist or marriage counselor. I remain involved until they are done with treatment. This is a strong initiative to ensure people do not fall through the cracks and are not forgotten."

Mental health services are covered by Tricare for active duty members, or civilian health insurance plans depending on the member's current status.

"Or if they don't have insurance, then I look for available community resources."

Ms. Schiff can be reached on base at 295-7315. The WDPH office is open during the week, and on drill weekends, from 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. in the 162nd Medical Group.

"They can walk right in to Med Group and ask for me, or they call ahead first," said Schiff.