• Thu. May 19th, 2022

‘Really not alone’: Air Force spouse’s social support group aims to improve mental health in Okinawa

Sarah Russell, an Air Force spouse, started the Mental Health Peer Alliance at Kadena Air Base, Okinawa, after being diagnosed with bipolar disorder last year. (Matthew M. Burke/Stars and Stripes)

KADENA AIR BASE, Okinawa — Air Force wife Sarah Russell started her own type of mental health support group after being diagnosed with bipolar disorder last year.

Kadena has an adequate share of Department of Defense therapy and health programs, Russell said, but she wanted to supplement her treatment with something less serious, centered around fun activities and making new friends.

“One of the psychiatrists I had seen as an outpatient told me they don’t offer group therapy here,” she recently told Stars and Stripes. “I decided to try to start something, a peer-to-peer social support group.”

She founded the Mental Health Peer Alliance in September 2020. Its events typically attract six to eight members, but over 400 people belong to their closed Facebook group.

A group like Russell’s supplement treatment found on base, much like Alcoholics Anonymous, said Air Force Maj. Emily Graze, 18 Wing mental health flight commander and licensed psychologist. When it comes to mental health, you can never provide too many services, she told Stars and Stripes on November 5.

“There’s always room to move forward and deliver more,” Graze said.

The military has a need for mental health services that it often fails to meet, according to an August 2020 Department of Defense Inspector General report.

According to the report, about 14% of all active duty military personnel — 203,040 of them — had diagnosed mental health conditions in 2017. In contrast, 18.9% of all adults in the United States this year- there suffered from mental illness.

However, the report found that the DOD was not fulfilling its duty to provide access to timely and continuous mental health care, although the military health care system was taking steps to improve, according to the report. It did not specifically address the availability of group therapy.

In June 2020, Russell, 34, of Sacramento, Calif., began acting irrationally, suffering from paranoia and delusions surrounding her marriage, she said during an interview with Stars and Stripes in November. . She told base security forces that her husband was following her and hacking into her phone.

“I suffered from paranoid delusions,” she said.

The mother-of-four was admitted to the mental health unit at U.S. Naval Hospital Okinawa at Camp Foster.

Russell found she had a family history of the disorder, which is characterized by “unusual changes in mood, energy, activity levels, concentration and ability to perform daily tasks,” according to the National Institute of Mental Health. .

After her diagnosis, Russell received medication that helped her control the disorder, she said. Then she discovers art therapy and makes new friends who are going through similar difficulties. This seemed to reassure her.

“Making a genuine friend and art therapy were a few things that helped me heal mentally,” she said. “Friendships can change people, improve quality of life and even save lives.”

Russell left the hospital after nine days. She first focused on making sure she was okay. She found the best medicine for her and went to consult her husband, which improved their marriage.

Then Russell wanted to bring like-minded people together and started looking for beneficial group activities, she said.

She proposed four criteria for activities: exercising, volunteering, socializing, and taking productive risks, like teaching, learning a skill, or overcoming a minor phobia. The Mental Health Peer Alliance was born.

The group meets at Kadena twice a week for activities like art therapy, exercises for mothers and young children, yoga, game nights, and service projects like beach cleanups.

“Just having us exist on social media, I think, gives people hope that they really aren’t alone,” she said.

The group is open to any adult who has experienced depression or anxiety, Russell said. No formal diagnosis is necessary.

Nikita Restrepo, 28, an Air Force wife from Miami, arrived in Okinawa over the summer. She responded to a social media post about the group because she suffers from social anxiety and is prone to depression.

“We started painting and it was actually therapeutic, and I’m not usually a painter,” she said. “I was like, ‘I enjoyed that; I want to do that more.

For more information, request to join the group’s Facebook group at www.facebook.com/groups/mhpaokinawa.

author's picture

Matthew M. Burke

Matthew M. Burke has been reporting from Okinawa for Stars and Stripes since 2014. The Massachusetts native and UMass Amherst alumnus previously covered Naval Base Sasebo and Marine Corps Air Base Iwakuni, Japan, for the newspaper. His work has also appeared in the Boston Globe, Cape Cod Times and other publications.