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News | Aug. 20, 2021

Mental Health: It Takes a Village

By Airman 1st Class Anna Nolte

Guardian Wingman, a suicide prevention training program designed by the Mental Health clinic at Kadena Air Base, Japan, aims to improve mental health management by building a community of Airmen equipped with the tools to support their fellow wingmen.

A key component of the Air Force’s ability to maintain air supremacy is being a ready and resilient force, requiring a hard look at how mental health is treated in the military and how that treatment can be improved.

“The Guardian Wingman program is a comprehensive training program to help reduce the stigma and fear of talking about things when we have problems or difficulties,” said Maj. Joanna Ho, 18th Operational Medical Readiness Squadron director of psychological health. “It gives people the tools and the understanding of what to say, what to do and how to respond. Even if you don’t have the perfect thing, now you’re armed with all these ways of looking at the situation.”

For Airmen who may have a negative impression of mental health treatment, this training attempts to encourage help-seeking behavior by enabling Airmen to find support from someone they are already familiar with and close to.

“Having that one person in your unit that you have rapport with, and you actually know personally, gives people more of an opportunity to talk to someone they're more comfortable with,” said Airman 1st Class Miranda Lugo, 18th OMRS mental health technician and Guardian Wingman trainer. “I think having this program gives people opportunities to actually open up more.”

Becoming a guardian wingman involves a training session that focuses on both prevention and intervention. A combination of classroom instructions and roleplaying scenarios are designed to build confidence in responding to an Airman in emotional distress before suicidal ideation occurs, and the ability to calmly use available resources when responding to an Airman who is experiencing suicidal thoughts.

Each unit has a different culture with unique mission risks, stressors and issues, Ho explained. Using the train-the-trainer model, the Guardian Wingman program empowers an individual with the skill set and knowledge they can tailor to the specific needs of their unit when training others. A test administered before and after the training gives commander’s an idea of how ready their unit is to respond to an Airman at risk for death by suicide.

“These are basic things as a human being that we can learn and utilize about each other, to be there for each other, and that’s the idea: what would a wingman do?” Ho said. “If everyone does that on a regular basis; we’re going to be a better, stronger community overall.”
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