Navy submarine force increases stress-management services
GROTON, Conn. — The U.S. Navy's elite submarine force is stepping up stress-management services for its sailors, responding in part to elevated numbers of unexpected dropouts among younger service members.
A psychiatrist at Naval Submarine Base New London, Navy Capt. Steven Wechsler, has been meeting with sailors for the last three months at his office on the waterfront, going aboard submarines to introduce himself, and giving talks on issues surrounding deployments. The idea is to engage sailors who might be reluctant to seek out mental health professionals at a military clinic and keep them focused.
It's a model that the Navy intends to replicate at its six other homeports for submarines in Virginia, Georgia, Hawaii, Washington state, southern California and Guam.
Wechsler himself served in the submarine force for years, and he said that experience helps put sailors at ease. He understands the challenges that come with spending weeks at a time inside a cramped metal tube on stealthy missions, with limited communication home to loved ones.
"When the hatch is shut, that hatch is shut. They are contained within that environment," Wechsler said. "Somebody who is maybe a little more introverted is going to run into difficulty because they're in close proximity to other people all the time."
Options for exercise - one of the more popular stress relievers - are limited not only by space, but also concerns about banging around and making noise that could give up a sub's location. So Wechsler works with sailors on other strategies to improve resilience.
The Navy also has been working to overcome a stigma attached to mental health treatment, and officials say the submarine force's approach - a doctor "embedded" on the waterfront - is among several taken by various military communities.
A spokesman for the submarine force, Cmdr. Tommy Crosby, said the new services stem partly from the leadership's recognition of needs among a younger generation of sailors, as highlighted by a higher rate of dropouts - or "unplanned losses" - for mental health reasons. Other submarine force officials have described tendencies among millennials to include more reliance on feedback and less adaptability to setbacks compared to an older generation.
The submarine force's top enlisted sailor, Force Master Chief Wesley Koshoffer, said mental health issues have arisen for some younger sailors when they first encounter significant stress from a failed relationship, failure of a test, or discipline. He said the Navy has been investing more in teaching coping skills, building mentorship programs and other efforts to give sailors confidence to succeed.
The Navy ran a pilot mental health program a few years ago in Norfolk, Virginia, to see if it could cut down on the dropouts. After a year when submarine crews out of Norfolk had 22 "unplanned losses" for mental health reasons, the program cut that number in the following year in 14, according to Capt. Matthew Hickey, the submarine force's chief medical officer.
Wechsler said he has seen the vast majority of his patients return to duty.
"I can be there immediately when they're having a bad day as opposed to letting that bad day fester and develop a symptomatic response," he said.