Investigation into sailor suicides reveals encumbered mental health system aboard USS George Washington

The mental health system aboard the USS George Washington is “overwhelmed” and sailors have little understanding of alternative resources, according to the Navy’s investigation into three sailor suicides.

In May, the Navy launched an investigation into the April deaths, interviewing senior medical officers and sailors aboard the carrier which was undergoing a checkup at the Newport News Shipbuilding. While the investigation of three suicides by sailors assigned to the USS George Washington found the deaths to be unconnected, the roughly 60-page report released Dec. 19 found that Washington psychologist and behavioral health technician Psych Boss and Psych Tech , they were “overwhelmed”. and struggled to keep up with the demand for services.

From January 2021 to January 2022, the ship reported 2,600 mental health patient encounters with the chief of psychiatry, behavioral health technician, and two substance abuse rehabilitation program counselors. It was unclear how many sailors sought mental health services, as a “patient encounter” could mean a sailor was seen multiple times.

Of the three Washington sailors who committed suicide in April, only 24-year-old Natasha Huffman was a patient on Washington’s mental health team.

The head of psychiatry and the psychiatric technician reported a “significant delay” for initial appointments despite each seeing up to 20 patients per day. According to the research, this means it could take a sailor up to six weeks to get an initial non-emergency mental health appointment.

“(The senior medical officer) and Psych Boss had considered switching from individual therapy to group therapy to handle the high volume, but chose not to because group therapy ‘had not worked well in the past,'” it said. read in the report. .

Leadership aboard the Washington added to the demand for mental health services.

The Navy has sponsorship and mentorship programs available to connect Sailors with leaders who will guide them through their assimilation into a new command. But according to the investigation, several sailors reported a lack of mentoring aboard the aircraft carrier, saying leaders were unwilling or uncomfortable discussing mental health issues with young sailors.

“Psych Tech stated that ‘leadership,’ and specifically LPOs, ‘don’t have time’ to treat their subordinates’ mental health issues and want to refer them to Psych Boss and Psych Tech for treatment.” says the report.

While the medical team aboard the Washington was overwhelmed, the deployed resilience adviser was “underutilized.”

The resilience counselor, at an offsite location 3 miles from the aircraft carrier, saw only 46 patients from January 2021 to January 2022. The deployed resilience counselors are civilian physicians who provide confidential, short-term non-medical advice, while the sailors are deployed or in port

“Sailors interviewed were generally unaware that the deployed resiliency counselor is a readily available resource who does not readily share patient information, and any information shared with the DRC is not entered into the sailor’s military health record,” the report said.

In addition, several sailors interviewed during the investigation did not know who or where the deployed resilience counselor was. But those who knew the counselor was 3 miles from the carrier “were hesitant to take that much time off work to go there (or didn’t think they could),” the report says.

After the suicides, the Navy assigned an additional resilience adviser to the Washington, this time placing them aboard the aircraft carrier. The ship also has three chaplains who can provide emotional and spiritual guidance.

The research included a large number of suggestions, some of which have already been implemented.

“Recommendations, such as adding additional mental health counselors and refining the welcome-aboard process for new sailors, are underway. We are also enhancing our team building program to make sure all Sailors know they are a critical component of our Navy team,” said Capt. Dave Hecht, US Fleet Forces spokesman.

Based on the first investigation, the Navy is also considering reviewing the adequacy of mental health care and professional manning for ships entering complex refueling and a review to better balance manning with demand as well such as requesting that the Military Entry Processing Command review the initial Navy endorsement. psychological suitability assessment process.

“This process should not be intended to prevent individuals from entering the naval service, but rather should be designed to identify those who may be at risk of psychological difficulties. This review should focus on proactive measures to identify unresolved and/or untreated disorders, and develop a treatment plan to help sailors better assimilate to the arduous environment of naval service,” the report reads.

The psychological fitness assessment recommendation was modified to suggest that the Navy coordinate this effort with the Marine Corps High Risk Sailor Identification Initiative to develop a risk management tool for use by commanding officers to to define, identify, manage and supervise high-risk sailors more effectively and transparently within their command and during transfer processes.

But those recommendations, as well as others aimed at improving mental health and support resources, recreation programs and command mentoring initiatives, are being evaluated as part of a second, larger investigation assessing command climate and challenges. quality of service exclusive to the shipyard. the environment is ongoing.

“The results of this service quality investigation will be released in the coming months and we anticipate that they will have a positive impact on our boaters and their families,” Hecht said.

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