The Navy has beefed up mental health care for sailors dealing with ‘rude awakening’ of military life

After two deadly collisions and a cluster of suicides, the Navy is providing more mental health counseling to sailors where they work.

By Andrew Dyer, American Homefront ProjectMay 16, 2023 9:45 am

From the American Homefront Project:

The Embedded Mental Health Clinic at Naval Base San Diego is just steps away from the bustling waterfront that’s home to 51 Navy surface vessels. The clinic, which opened in October, serves the thousands of sailors stationed on those ships.

San Diego’s clinic is one of several now in operation across the Navy’s surface fleet concentration areas around the world.

Capt. Tara Smith, the mental health officer for Surface Force Pacific Fleet in San Diego, said the clinic’s 20 providers have been busy since it opened. Sailors working on ships experience stressors unique to their jobs, she said.

“It’s noisy,” Smith said. “You don’t see the sunlight all day unless you’re working on the flight deck. You have artificial lighting all day — there aren’t windows.”

Adjustment disorder is the most common issue seen in the clinic, Smith said.

“(For) a lot of our young people … the Navy’s a tough adjustment,” Smith said. “It’s a rude awakening when maybe you’ve never been held accountable before and someone is saying ‘You’re late to work and here are the consequences.’ That’s eye-opening.”

The mental health of sailors came under renewed scrutiny in 2022 after a cluster of suicides on the aircraft carrier George Washington in Norfolk, Va.

The Navy’s investigation found the suicides were not connected. Of three that occurred within the same week, only one was related to working conditions on the ship, according to the investigation.

The ship entered the yards in 2017 to refuel its nuclear reactors. However, maintenance issues and the pandemic turned what was supposed to be a four-year process into one that is still ongoing.

Smith said that although tragic, suicide contagion — a phenomenon in which one person’s suicide might inspire other attempts — is a problem beyond just the Navy.

“I think the Geroge Washington was unfortunate, but it certainly wasn’t the first time in our military or our country where we’ve had contagion,” Smith said. “But it’s not a uniquely military issue that we are somehow failing at the problem of suicide. There is a nationwide problem with suicide right now.”

Capt. Tara Smith, the mental health officer for Surface Force Pacific Fleet in San Diego, shows Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday around the Fleet Mental Health Clinic on March 13, 2023.
Aja Jack / U.S. Navy

The Navy also found that mental health issues played a role in two deadly collisions involving Navy surface ships in 2017. Seven sailors died aboard the USS Fitzgerald that collided with a cargo ship near Japan, and 10 sailors died when the USS John McCain collided with a merchant vessel near Singapore. Though investigators found widespread causes for the accidents, a Navy report recommended improved training, as well as sleep and stress management.

The Navy has also started a new initiative to station chaplains aboard its destroyers. Destroyers, often called the workhorses of the Navy, carry crews of around 200 sailors each.

While chaplains primarily manage religious ministry programs, they also provide confidential counseling to sailors, according to Force Chaplain Capt. Richard Ryan.

“We’re able to see them as often as they want to be seen and help them through these issues,” Ryan said.

Not all destroyers have full-time chaplains yet, but Ryan said those that do are proving the need is there.

In 2022, Destroyers with full-time chaplains saw an average of 31 sailors a month, Ryan said. On destroyers that relied on part-time chaplains, fewer than three sailors a month received counseling.

Sailors on one of the San Diego base’s piers said news about the resources available has reached them on the deckplates.

“Every time I talk to one of my sailors, I let them know if they need a chaplain, or they need to go to medical, that’s something available to them all the time,” said Petty Officer 2nd Class Joseph Hintsala, a hull technician and workcenter supervisor stationed on the littoral combat ship Santa Barbara.

Petty Officer 3rd Class Dacia Chupp said that in the three years she’s been in the Navy, the service’s attitude toward mental health has changed.

“They communicate more now and they make it more known we can go to them or other people if we need to,” said Chupp, who works as a boatswain’s mate on the amphibious transport dock Somerset.

Twenty-nine destroyers now have full time chaplains on board and the Navy said it plans to fully staff the rest of its destroyer fleet over the next two years.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a hotline for individuals in crisis or for those looking to help someone else. To speak with a certified listener, call 988.

CrisisText Line is a texting service for emotional crisis support. To speak with a trained listener, text HELLO to 741741. It is free, available 24/7, and confidential.

This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans.