A day in the life: Mental health supports Airmen, readiness

  • Published
  • By Shireen Bedi
  • Air Force Surgeon General Public Affairs
As with any Air Force healthcare provider, Capt. Daniel Gibson, a clinical psychologist with the 92nd medical group, Fairchild Air Force Base, Washington, relies on a collaborative, patient-centered approach to care.

The mental health clinic at Fairchild Air Force Base uses a collaborative approach to ensure the best patient care. Gibson’s team supports the larger Air Force mission by reaching out directly to Airmen and their first sergeants to assess specific mental health issues and needs, which is vital for readiness. As a result, Gibson wears many hats.

To start the day, Gibson attends a team huddle with other healthcare providers and technicians. They discuss which patients and appointments are scheduled for the day, organize how mental health technicians are going to provide support, and discuss any new and relevant information.

“Before seeing any patient, it is important to orient ourselves for the day,” said Gibson. “The mental health technician and I work together as a team, identifying what kinds of information is important to gather from the patient, how to approach goals and treatment plans, and review notes from the previous session. We work to make sure the appointment is both productive and pleasant for the patient.”

Gibson also takes a collaborative approach during each appointment. He gets to know the needs of the patient and assesses the level of symptoms. To aid in this, every patient logs onto the behavioral health data portal in the waiting room. There, patients check in and track their symptoms across a wide range of concerns.

“We look at their scores from the previous session and we can see what their levels are in real time as they are putting it in,” said Gibson. “It lets us know what symptoms are elevated and what issues need to be addressed. We review the data with the patient and see the changes in symptoms. The patient can see a purpose in putting in that information. For example, if somebody is coming in with depression and their symptoms are improving in some areas, but not in others, it helps guide the focus and direction of that session.”

Sometimes patient cases can be challenging, but Gibson relies on the varied expertise and specialties of other providers in the clinic who can offer additional guidance to ensure effective treatment.

“Another clinical psychologist may know more about one particular clinical presentation than another,” said Gibson. “There is always collaboration with another provider who may be more familiar with those symptoms. We try not to be in a vacuum, but to work together to address the needs of the patient. We work from a patient-first perspective.”

Patient care is not the only thing that makes up Gibson’s day. The team makes an effort to improve their reach to Airmen who may need help by visiting with different units. Gibson develops tailored outreach initiatives to address misconceptions about mental health and to engage with Airmen.

“We have gathered a lot of qualitative information from Airmen to see what the common concerns were, what their perception was about mental health, and what they didn’t like about previous mental health briefings,” said Gibson. “We take that into consideration and adapt an outreach program based on what they are asking for.”

One example of this is the “Walk the Line” program. As Gibson explains, it is a prevention method to help Airmen learn about the responsible ways of approaching such things as mental health concerns and drinking.

“It is an opportunity for Airmen to ask questions, learn a little bit about what we do, and be more engaged rather than just talking to them or showing them a slideshow presentation,” said Gibson. “It gives people a chance to peek behind the curtain and see that we really want to help them and break down some of the myths.”

A significant part of developing tailored outreach to Airmen is the collaboration between the mental health clinic and the first sergeants to address the lingering issues within their units. Gibson, along with a mental health technician, have what is called a “shirt council.”

This type of outreach to first sergeants and their Airmen makes it possible for the mental health clinic to focus work with leadership throughout the whole medical group and base. According to Gibson, providers in uniform do not just do patient care, they are there to support the larger mission.

“If you are a provider wearing the uniform, you’re an officer first and a provider second,” said Gibson. “Whether you are a psychologist or social worker, you are not just doing therapy in a room. It is very much about mission support. We are expected to lead some sort of element or program, meet with leadership throughout the base, and expand services throughout the unit. It is another layer of responsibility.”

Throughout each day, Gibson is grateful to fulfill those responsibilities where he is able help patients overcome obstacles and to care for Airmen who are working in defense of the country.

“I am honored to have that role, connection, and closeness to the larger Air Force mission,” said Gibson. “Airmen at every level come to the mental health clinic to be cleared and get psych testing. Nothing feels better than knowing you are supporting those who are protecting our country.”