Published: January 12, 2022
A Focus on Belonging: Mental Health and Wellness DEPLOY Fellow Wants All #MilFams to Feel at Home
Meet Janessa. She’s a Navy spouse, toddler mom, and served as the Blue Star Families’ Mental Health and Wellness DEPLOY Fellow, a position made possible by Starbucks. In the last decade, mental health within the military community has importantly been at the forefront of our conversations. The challenges of military life—the deployments, frequent moves, and overall unpredictability—all serve as major stressors on service members and their dependents. In fact, according to the 2020 Military Families Lifestyle Survey, 16% of active-duty service member and 23% of active-duty spouse respondents report having a current diagnosis of generalized anxiety disorder. If nearly a quarter of active-duty spouses have been diagnosed with anxiety, you can only imagine what the numbers would look like when considering those who go undiagnosed, as is often the case with mental health concerns.
From the survey, we also know “belonging” is strongly associated with mental health. Yet, when looking at belonging for the military community, only 27% of active-duty family respondents currently feel a sense of belonging to their local civilian community. Without that important connection, the mental health and well-being of military families will continue to suffer. Why is this concerning? Because we know when service members are stressed about their family members at home, mission readiness suffers.
Both personally and professionally, Janessa understands firsthand just how critical it is to build a community of support. “Military families often find themselves coping with painful feelings of loss from separation,” Janessa said. “Separation from close family and friends, and separation from your service member. Being apart at special moments can be so hard. Looking around at special events—graduations, weddings, anniversaries—and not seeing your service member, is something I will never get used to. And finding a group of friends after each move to help you cope can be tough. Getting settled in is one thing, being accepted and welcomed is another. I have seen the impacts of those challenges frequently at work.”
With a master’s degree in industrial and organizational psychology, Janessa has worked over the last 12 years for the Department of the Army, National Institutes of Health, and the Department of Veterans Affairs. In that time, she focused on engagement strategy to connect military families with the resources they need to thrive. This past year, in particular, Janessa’s professional work and personal life collided when her then one-year-old daughter needed open heart surgery. She found herself needing to lean on new friends and the local community, as well as rely on resources, to help her family navigate this scary time. But finding those resources and feeling comfortable asking for support isn’t always easy for Janessa.
“Being a military family of color can be isolating at times,” Janessa shared. “My husband is part of a close-knit, small community of submariners. The physical representation of active-duty families of color within the group is very low, and it can be intimidating. Moving with the military can also be stressful, more than moving already is for everyone. Studies have shown that military bases tend to be in less diverse areas, and I have found that to be true. We have been stationed in areas where people struggle with understanding that differences are a good thing. It made me feel nonchalant to the duty station and generally not very motivated to get involved.”
That lack of motivation to get involved can have a major impact on our military families’ overall well-being and access to support. What’s more is the recent Pain Points Poll found that military families of color are less likely to hear about support and resources available to them. These are resources we know are critical to create an environment where military families can thrive.
“If these families do not see themselves represented in the advertising or actual event, they are less likely to show up,” Janessa shared. “Oftentimes, a previous, negative connection could have a lasting impact on their willingness to try to reach out for assistance again. The resources also have to appeal to families of color. More culturally diverse events, or bilingual employees/volunteers, would go a long way within this community.”
So what are we doing about it?
In 2018, Blue Star Families took an important first step to address the issue of belonging and its impacts on military families by building funded Blue Star Families Chapters across the country. The efforts started with pilot programs in New York and San Diego, which have grown to 11 Chapters across the country today, with another chapter launching this year! Through the Connected Communities Impact Study, we found the Chapter model works to provide the building blocks toward belonging and produce positive mental health outcomes. Starting in 2020, Blue Star Families began building on those efforts to create belonging by addressing the issue of representation within the military support community. More specifically, we launched the Racial Equity and Inclusion Initiative (REI), and subsequently, the DEPLOY Fellows Program.
Thanks to the partnership with Starbucks, in her role as the Mental Health and Wellness DEPLOY Fellow, Janessa worked to address the feelings of anxiety and stress all military families experience as a result of their nomadic, unpredictable lifestyle. She worked to ensure military families of color are receiving the valuable resources that will allow them to feel comfortable and confident as they continue to serve. “I want spouses to know that I am a safe and knowledgeable space for them to go to,” Janessa said. “As a psychology practitioner, it is important to me that those I serve can get the answers they need from me to make their lives a little easier. Creating the opportunity to foster a culture of diversity, resilience, and well-being is such an important goal, and I am thankful that this program exists to help get the ball rolling.”
We invite you to join in the conversation with us, to ensure all military families receive the mental health services they need and deserve. Creating a strong foundation of well-being for military families will build a more focused and effective fighting force. Connect with us to share your diverse experience as a military family. Tell us what challenges your family continues to face and opportunities you are looking for to enrich life as a military family. Together we can impact change.