The National Guard is being proactive when it comes to mental health.
For many, being in the National Guard is both an honor and a sacrifice. Balancing civilian careers, family life and missions that can arise on a moment's notice can be rather challenging. Maintaining mental health and wellness is an important part of the mission, especially for a Guardsman.
Following the events at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, the National Guard was requested to support federal law enforcement agencies with security, communications, medical evacuation, logistics and safety support to state, district and federal agencies.
More than 26,000 National Guard members from all 50 states, three territories, and the District of Columbia were rapidly deployed to Washington to support the mission. Soldiers and Airmen had little notice to physically, as well as mentally, prepare.
The Vermont National Guard leadership ensured there was a mental health resource for the mission by sending a Soldier uniquely prepared to wear more than one hat of responsibility on duty.
Sgt. Christina Fontaine, with the Vermont Army National Guard’s medical detachment, is a behavioral health specialist as well as a victim advocate.
“I went to school for social work and helping people has always been a drive of mine,” said Fontaine. “I decided why not do it for those protecting our country that could use the help.”
Mental illness has a history of stigmatization that is still being overcome. Many have shied away from this military occupational specialty, but not Fontaine.
“This job is definitely something that I am really passionate about,” said Fontaine. “I enlisted when I was 17 to become a behavioral health technician because I saw this occupation as an essential career that required someone passionate about the wellbeing of others. I am happy that I can provide that support for Soldiers and Airmen who are down here on this mission.”
The mental health and wellness of Soldiers and Airmen is an essential piece of mission success.
“I want to emphasize that the leadership on this mission realized the need for behavioral health support and made it happen. They specifically requested a behavioral health representative to be here. They realize how important it is to have these types of assets available while on a mission,” said Fontaine.
Fontaine adjusts her schedule so she can provide behavioral health and victim advocacy services to those on day and night shifts.
“I come in and chat with everybody, see how everybody is doing as well as provide training,” said Fontaine.
Fontaine also provides her phone number and is on-call 24/7 while serving this mission.
“I am prepared to take calls from any state that needs me, both Soldiers and Airmen,” Fontaine said. “It’s important that I get my name and face out there so people know who I am and get comfortable with the idea of being able to talk to me as a Soldier who can go on shift with them. They may realize that behavioral health isn't this scary, out of reach place to go. They can see that we are there for them and can assist in any way that they need.”
Some troops feel there may be negative repercussions to seeking mental health resources. However, these programs have been put in place to assist Soldiers and Airmen in meeting mission readiness.
"Mental health is important. If you are struggling with anything, reach out and get help. Do not keep it bottled up inside. I don't think anyone should feel shame in needing to reach out and get help,” said Fontaine.
Asking for help is a sign of strength. If you need someone to talk to, please reach out to resources like Military OneSource (https://www.militaryonesource.mil/) and Tricare’s (https://www.tricare.mil/CoveredServices/Mental/CrisisLines) crisis hotlines.