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A changing culture led to better mental health practices in the armed forces

US Navy
U.S. Navy
U.S. Navy Sailors "man the rails" of the flight deck and render a salute, aboard the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS RONALD REAGAN (CVN 76) as the ship gets underway from San Diego, Calif., on Jan. 27, 2007. (U.S. Navy Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class John P. Curtis) (Released)

In the past, Section 8 referred to a category of discharge from the U.S. military, when a member is judged to be mentally unfit for service. It became a household term through movies and TV series such as “Full Metal Jacket” and “M*A*S*H.”

“After 33 years in the military, I never heard of anything referred to as a Section 8,” said retired Navy Captain Tim Kinsella, who served as commanding officer aboard Naval Air Station Pensacola from March, 2019 to earlier this year.

“They’ll be referred to a mental health professional, or they can refer themselves,” he said. “It’s ‘are they compatible with military service? Are their treatment regimens that they have to go through that are not compatible with the employment schedule, and things like that?’ So, It’s taken very much on a case-by-case basis, in the needs of the individual and the needs of the service.”

The testing actually begins when new sailors, soldiers, marines, airmen, and coast guardsmen report for basic training, with the testers on the lookout for telltale signs.

“The obvious signs of depression, of wanting to be alone, being irritable, withdrawing within one’s self,” said Kinsella. “Sometimes anger, where they can’t control their emotions. It doesn’t always have to be the case, but it usually manifests itself in some anti-social behaviors.”

Injuries suffered in the military such as traumatic brain injuries, post-traumatic stress disorder, and major depressive disorder have always been around, but with other names. Kinsella says while they haven’t changed, how they are approached has.

“Not even 10 years ago it was almost taboo to talk about any mental health issues you were having, and now we’re trying to change the culture where it’s okay to talk about it,” Kinsella said. “And it being recognized by the [federal] government, by the medical industry, that traumatic brain injury is a thing. Just because you can’t see it, just because you don’t have blood coming from a wound, doesn’t mean that you’re not injured.”

Kinsella offers himself as an example of a military member that sought help. During his watch at NAS, there was Hurricane Sally, a fatal aviation accident, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the terrorist attack on the base in December 2019.

“This has been a very, very difficult day for us, for our families, [and] for the Navy family here,” Kinsella said on the day of the attack. “The days ahead are going to be difficult when it final sinks in what has happened here. The

Courtesy photo
Ret. Capt. Tim Kinsella, U.S. Navy

most important thing going forward for us is to support the families. They are family — they’re our family. We are family here in the Department of the Navy.”

During that 13-month period, Kinsella found that he was having trouble processing the tragedies and the resulting stress. He wasn’t, in his words, giving himself very much grace. So he decided to see a mental health professional each month for about a year.

“I learned a lot not just about myself, but about the absolute necessity to not be afraid to ask for help when you need it,” said Kinsella. “How important it was to give ourselves grace. We’re great at giving other people grace, but we’re not very good at giving ourselves grace. And we’re not good at creating space in our own lives to deal with things that we need to talk about, we need to deal with, we need to process.”

Much of the stresses and mental health issues that active military and veterans deal with are also faced by civilian first responders law enforcement, firefighters, and paramedics.

“And the things that they see are not things a normal person will see, and you don’t have to be on a battlefield, to make things out more traumatic than you’ll see on the battlefield,” Kinsella said. “Because it may involve children and a home. And there are things that you cannot unsee.”

“We are concerned, of course, for our personnel and our firefighters, but also for the members of our community who are also learning in a new way that mental health challenges can be physical illnesses and not choices,” said Pensacola Fire Chief Ginny Cranor.

They’re called “firefighters” because they do fight fires. But Cranor adds that those men and woman actually wear a number of helmets making it all the more vital to keep them on the job.

“We’re rescue professionals — cutting people out of cars and rescuing those that fall down the bluff, and responding to medical emergencies,” said Cranor. “If we lose that institutional knowledge because of stress or burnout, it is difficult for an organization to hire new people.”

Along with existing city and department-related programs, Cranor says PFD also collaborates with the 2nd Alarm Project, a grant-funded program that works through the state on behalf of all first responders, but it began with firefighters.

“They've been very active in the firefighting community in the last two years,” the chief said. “In fact, they had many of their representatives at the Surfside [building] Collapse in Miami and provided assistance to firefighters there. Pensacola Fire Department will be hosting peer support training and some resilience training along with the 2nd Alarm Project in February and in April.”

Another byproduct of the task force meetings, is that the public is getting more information on how first responders handle their jobs, and the related stresses — what Cranor calls being in the “worst-case scenario” business 24/7.

“We really focus on planning and preparation in advance, so that our community doesn't have to,” said Cranor. “So that they can focus on certain preparedness items, but not dwell on just the absolute worst outcomes every day.”

Cranor is hoping that her department can take lessons from the task force that can enhance their new peer support team, along with trying to decrease the stigma of mental health issues.

“The more prepared our firefighters are, the more resilient they'll be,” she said. “We want firefighters that want to be firefighters for an entire career, and not end up in a situation where they're faced with some kind of stress or burnout, and then we lose those talented public servants.”

Since his retirement from the Navy, Kinsella has joined the new Center for Leadership, at the University of West Florida’s College of Business. He plans to implement ways to deal with mental health issues — such as self-care through what he calls the “bucket of joy.” And he says there’s a difference between happiness and joy.

“Happiness is when your wife tells you that you can buy a new set of golf clubs. Joy is when you hit a 4-iron two inches from the cup,” Kinsella said with a chuckle. “Joy is a choice of how you’re going to live your life and allowing joy to come into your life. And if you don’t know where that joy comes from, then when you are in a crisis moment, feeling depressed, or thing aren’t going right, you can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel because you don’t know how you’re going to get joy back into your life. So we’ve got to know those things about ourself.”

In leadership — military, civilian, and elected — Kinsella contends that their own mental health, and that of the people around them must be understood, with total clarity, so that they can look after both.

Dave came to WUWF in September, 2002, after 14 years as News Director at the Alabama Radio Network in Montgomery, Mobile and Birmingham and a total of 27 years in commercial radio. He's also served as Alabama Bureau Chief for United Press International, and a stringer for the Birmingham Post-Herald.