Where Do Service Members Get Mental Health Support? (For many, it’s not where you think.)

Families for Depression Awareness for Care for Your Mind

Mental health issues for members of the military run the spectrum, but major depressive disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder are especially prevalent. Mental health is still taboo in the military; though sometimes for good reason, revealing a mental health concern can result in loss of livelihood, way of life, and identity. There is a shortage of providers. And there is another layer of stigma beyond that in civilian society. As a consequence, service members find it difficult to get the professional help they need.

So how do members of the armed services access mental health care? One important, albeit unconventional, solution: service members turn to their chaplains not only for matters of faith and spirituality, but for help in addressing their mental health concerns. Working with a chaplain allows service members to work around barriers to accessing care.

We talked with Chaplain Dianna N. Watkins to learn more. When Dianna joined the U.S. Air Force as a chaplain candidate, she thought her job was going to be about faith. As it turns out, while “faith is always the beginning and the end” of the work she does, the situations and concerns she helps service members address are varied and complex – and many involve mental health issues.

One thing that sets military chaplains apart from civilian faith leaders – and sometimes creates additional challenges – is the rule of 100% confidentiality, formally called privileged communication: unlike chain of command operating procedures, nothing said to a military chaplain in the course of her duties can be divulged. The privilege of keeping the communication private rests with the individual, and the chaplain protects this. So, unlike civilian society, military chaplains cannot report to authorities any threats of violence to self or others.

Chaplains can, however, go to the highest commanders if they know of conditions that adversely affect the force’s readiness or mission. But because privileged communication prohibits the chaplain from revealing specific information, the chaplain must take care in crafting an appropriate message to the senior officer. In this way, chaplains are able to protect the privacy of some while taking steps to protect all.

Military chaplains receive training not only in pastoral care and theology (all have attained a Master of Divinity degree or its equivalent), but also in mental health and suicide prevention. Ch Watkins describes her role as providing services and support, with attention to solutions-focused counseling. This is especially useful when helping service members with mental health concerns. Ch Watkins helps them to “deal with the shame, guilt, and stigma associated with mental health issues.” Ch Watkins sees part of her role as “helping them to understand that their condition is not their fault” and identifying options for moving forward, which may include using military mental health services.

For instance, with the issues of PTSD, moral injury, and sexual violence, many individuals blame themselves and recount the ways they could have “done something different to prevent the situation.” The job of the chaplain, as counselor and confidant, is to not only provide access to more specialized practitioners when long-term counseling is necessary (such as mental health services and the sexual assault response coordinator (SARC)), but also deal with the spiritual reality guilt may bring. Sometimes, individuals also express God’s absence in their situation or not being able to hear God in their pain. Ch Watkins works through this emotional and theological turmoil by not disagreeing with their emotions, but celebrating their strength to regain clarity, talk out their story, and seek wholeness. She explained that when people feel God is absent, it is not the time to disagree or prove a point, but to work through that difficult space and answer the question of theodicy: “Why do bad things happen to good people? Why? And what can we do about it to make it better?”

Ch Watkins explained that, although they provide one-on-one pastoral counseling, chaplains of different faiths work collaboratively to address the spiritual and mental health needs of the people on the base. They – and the chaplain assistants – provide advice and counsel when one is dealing with a new or challenging situation. In addition, they “refer service members to chaplains outside their own faith when they believe another chaplain will offer a different perspective or extra support.”

For example, there have been times that a female service member has been referred to Ch Watkins because she was a better fit for the issues involved. Other times, she may do the same if the individual is asking for something her specific faith group cannot provide. Many installations also have civilian resources and contacts for faith groups not as popularly represented. Thus, the chapel team is very diverse and dense, using many people with various gifts, specialties, and talents to serve Airmen and families.

Chaplain assistants provide a critical function to the chaplain services team. A chaplain and chaplain assistant make up a religious support team, or RST, and function as a unit. The chaplain assistant is an enlisted member that is also trained in crisis intervention counseling, mental health and suicide prevention, and much more. Generally, they have experience in another job within the Air Force, and often bring that knowledge to help the team. Ch Watkins expressed that she has met a number of chaplain assistants who not only have degrees in counseling, social work, and more, but are also very active in their civilian faith communities. Most importantly, their approach is usually very beneficial in being the front line of the team, as most members encountered are enlisted. While the chaplain is a trained counselor and pastor, he or she is an officer, which can often be intimidating or seemingly inaccessible to some. Chaplain assistants can create a buffer, but also are a dynamic influence in the planning, action, leadership, and success of all religious activity across the installation.

Chaplain Watkins helps preserve her own mental health by creating space for herself every day and urges others to do the same: “You can’t lose your own humanity in the midst of someone else looking for theirs.” She explains it is very important to keep an active lifestyle. Going to the gym, listening to music, and simply having fun is just as important as personal Bible study, sermon preparation, and additional outside learning and training. Working on the holistic picture is what keeps many chaplains level, rested, and relevant.

Here are some resources that may be helpful:

Your Turn

  • What benefits do you think chaplains offer to service members seeking mental health support?
  • What do you think the military should do to encourage service members to utilize mental health services?
  • What other training do you think chaplains should have to provide mental health support?


Chaplain (Captain) Dianna N. Watkins is the Interim Wing Chaplain at the 164th Airlift Wing in Memphis, TN. Her responsibilities include managing various aspects of faith programming. Earlier this year, she successfully completed a tour of duty Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar. Ch Watkins is an ordained itinerant elder in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. She entered the USAF in January 2009.

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