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Defense Department Eyes 'First of Its Kind' Health and Wellness Program

Analysis  |  By Eric Wicklund  
   December 02, 2022

The Pentagon is planning to hire 2,000 healthcare professionals to address a wide range of health concerns, from suicide and dangerous behaviors to social determinants of health.

The Pentagon is getting serious about workplace wellness, with plans to create a "first of its kind" mental health program.

Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks said the Department of Defense is looking to create a department of some 2,000 healthcare staff to handle a wide range of issues, from suicide to social determinants of health.

“That could be on financial stability; it could be on food security; it could be on relationship issues," she said during a recent Washington Post online event. "All the factors that go into causing stress and harm behaviors, including suicide.”

"We are quite confident that's a very science-based approach that we're using," she added. "It's the largest effort like ... this that has ever existed at an unprecedented scale …. This prevention workforce will be a first-of-its-kind, and we're going to do it right here in the United States military because that's what we owe our people and their families."

While a report issued in October by the DoD indicated suicides in the military have dropped 15% from 2020 to 2021, the military isn't immune to the mental health crisis affecting the country, seen in rising rates of substance abuse, family stress and other harmful behaviors. Programs like REACH (Resources Exist, Asking Can Help) and CALM (Counseling Access to Lethal Means education) aim to help service members and healthcare professionals address these issues, but the DoD now wants to establish a dedicated workforce.

Some resources feature digital health and telehealth technology, designed to give service members and their families on-demand access to resources, include healthcare professionals, through mHealth apps and virtual visits. Those access points are designed to tackle the stigma of "being seen" as needing help.

"We have a number of initiatives underway now to make sure we remove that stigma, not just that it's not ... bad to seek help, if you will, for your behaviors, for your mental health, but really that it's a sign of strength," Hicks said.

That includes addressing thoughts of suicide and lethal force.

"We know, and it's well documented, that if we can create a little time and space between that ideation, that idea of having concerns about ... potentially committing suicide and those lethal means — obviously, firearms being foremost, but also medications — if we can create that time and space, create some safety, then that reduces the likelihood of suicide," she added.

Eric Wicklund is the associate content manager and senior editor for Innovation, Technology, Telehealth, Supply Chain and Pharma for HealthLeaders.

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