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Mental Health Flight helping military, families

Mental Health Flight personnel meet. From left to right: Licensed Clinical Social Worker Hollis Ferrell, Psychologist Jerri Turner, Licensed Clinical Social Worker Valerie Tucker, Psychologist Capt. Mayrin Munguia and Psychologist Capt. Spencer Clayton.(Air Force photo by Brandice J. O’Brien)

Mental Health Flight personnel meet. From left to right: Licensed Clinical Social Worker Hollis Ferrell, Psychologist Jerri Turner, Licensed Clinical Social Worker Valerie Tucker, Psychologist Capt. Mayrin Munguia and Psychologist Capt. Spencer Clayton.(Air Force photo by Brandice J. O’Brien)

TINKER AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. -- "Coming for help doesn't mean you're worthless; it means you value your worth, just like we do," said Sheryl Milton, 72nd Medical Support Squadron Family Advocacy officer.

The 72nd MDOS Mental Health Flight has 48 military, civilian and contracted professionals aiding Tinker's military members and their families. Organized by offices including Mental Health Clinic, Family Advocacy, Alcohol Drug Abuse Prevention Treatment, or ADAPT, and Drug, Demand and Reduction, and the Behavioral Health Optimization Program, the flight offers its clients decades worth of experience.

Guided by the Department of Defense policies and Air Force Instruction, the flight takes care of patients in crisis and helping them sort through problems with the goal of returning an individual to duty.

"We serve two missions - the patient and what's in the patient's best interest and the mission of the Air Force," said Maj. Vanessa Wong, Mental Health flight commander and forensic psychiatrist. She has been at Tinker a year, but in the mental health field since 2004. "Working in military mental health can be a dual-hatted position just because what a client wants is not necessarily compatible with Air Force needs and continuing on active duty. Mainly what drives that is what can be tolerated in a deployed or austere environment where medications and other mental health services might not be available."

Major Wong said a lot of the work they do is in prevention. Should a problem be discovered, working through it is essential. Quick fixes aren't common in mental health.

"A lot of people fear that coming to mental health is a career ender and it's embarrassing. Depending on rank, it might be uncomfortable to sit in the waiting room. But, mental illness is just like any other type of illness. Generally, the people who do well are the ones who are motivated to get better. They seek help earlier," she said. "If people wait too long, sometimes a lot of negative things have already happened - the marriage can't take it anymore. People have left, or there's a bad relationship with their children. If their illness has progressed far, it'll take longer to recover."

Regardless of when an individual seeks help, Ms. Milton said the moment someone realizes that changes need to be made to live a successful life is priceless.

"It is extremely empowering when you assist someone with the learn, grow, and change process," said Ms. Milton who has been working in the flight for more than 17 years, and a social worker for 30 years. "Every day I get to impact people's lives to make a difference. I assist people with realizing if they really want a different outcome, then they have to learn to do something differently."

While helping clients realize their issues and finding the right balance between the patient and AFIs may prove to be perplexing, officials said other challenges are budgets and staying ahead of the game as the drug and alcohol culture changes.

Olga Simons, ADAPT program manager, said the budget really concerns her.

"There is not enough money allocated for ADAPT to ensure we have ample resources available to perform our job in the manner in which we have previously been accustomed to," said Ms. Simons, who has been with in the flight for 11 years and in the field for 39 years. "Additionally, the continued decline in appropriated funds for our program hinders our ADAPT staff to obtain continuing education and/or training to remain abreast in the field of substance abuse."

Despite the challenges, the flight is constantly and consistently looking to help its clientele.

"This flight is an integral part of the operation on any installation, regardless of the color of the uniform, position or title held," said Abram Kelly, drug testing program manager. He has been with the flight for 10 years and has spent 20 years in the career field. "Due to the stressors we all face day to day, it is imperative we have trained professionals because mental health helps us navigate these stressors."