Mental health and the military: Breaking down the stigma

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Brandon M. Shuman
  • 911th Airlift Wing

Imagine going about your daily business, trying to find a job amongst a global pandemic, living with your parents to get by. You’re falling behind on your career development course studies and physical training and you’re dreading going to weekend duty with PT and CDC tests coming due. Despite your fears you can’t find the motivation to study or work out.


The UTA weekend finally comes, and you decide that enough is enough. You seek help with your motivation and procrastination problems. Not only do your coworkers encourage you to talk to the director of psychological health, but it also ends up being an easy and relaxed conversation, no judgment and no negative consequences. To your surprise, you find out that you have undiagnosed depression, later discovering that your family had suspicions about it, but were unsure how to approach you. You’re finally able to set up a game plan to deal with your problems, with plenty of help available.  


Situations similar to this may be a reality for many military members or their families, who don’t realize help is an arm’s reach away.


“The stigma is alive and well, mental health and the military,” said Michael Zimmerman, director of the psychological health program at the 911th Airlift Wing. “It's a combination that people equate with career ending. It can be, but most of the time that's not the case. I’m not in your military record. The only folks who know that you came here for anything are you and me. I can’t stress that enough.”


Zimmerman is a consultant to commanders on the psychological health of the 911th AW. On an individual basis, Zimmerman is a short-term, solution-focused problem solver. Zimmerman is the mental health provider for the entire wing, including traditional reservists, air reserve technicians and federal civilian employees. However, he is willing to help anyone who needs it.


“If anybody comes in here I'm going to get them something, I'm not going to turn you away,” said Zimmerman. “You name it, I help with it.”


Zimmerman covers standard varieties of depression, anxiety, and trauma, including conditions related to post deployment and sexual assault. Zimmerman also works with people who suffer from substance abuse and alcohol addiction.


“Things are happening that are affecting your emotions, or your thinking,” said Zimmerman. “But it's situational. It's one of those situations when things are ignored or not addressed properly, then it can progress into a full blown diagnosable condition.”


Part of Zimmerman’s duties is to walk around base to visit the various units and familiarize Airmen with his services. The most memorable portion of these visits is often Zimmerman’s colleague, who walks on four legs rather than two.


“Of course the star of the show is Boris,” said Zimmerman. “While Boris is not a therapy dog, he is an animal assisted activities dog. That by itself is something for folks who just come and spend a little time with that human animal bond.”


Zimmerman pushed to get a therapeutic dog to make walking around less of an awkward experience. Having a dog involved naturally diffuses anxiety and tension, he said, and the 911th AW was one of the first Air Force Reserve wings to obtain permission for one.


“When the director of psychological health comes rolling around on his own it goes with that stigma and everybody goes straight to, why is he here,” said Zimmerman. “So, guy brings dog around, the dog is the barrier breaker, the icebreaker.”


Even with Boris to thaw tensions, Zimmerman still deals with the side effects of mental health stigma. However, he remembers the time when he shared their discomfort.


After graduating high school, Zimmerman decided to join the military. Though he initially planned to join the Air Force to be a jet engine mechanic, no recruiter was available. Instead, he joined the Marines and was trained as a helicopter avionics technician.


In June of 2004, Zimmerman was offloaded from his ship and forward deployed to a component in Iraq. He spent the rest of his tour of there through the second battle of Fallujah as a detainee operations noncommissioned officer.


“That affected me a little bit more than I expected,” Zimmerman admitted.


When he eventually left the military, civilian life was harsher than he expected. There were no job prospects in his field, and his mental health struggles were starting to impact his sleep and social life. Still, the deep-seeded military stigma against seeking treatment made getting help difficult.


Eventually Zimmerman decided to go to the VA hospital for treatment. That decision changed his career path forever.


“Through the course of the summer working with the PTSD social worker at the VA, I was like, you know what, I want to do what you do,” he said.



Zimmerman joined the Pittsburgh Army ROTC and Pennsylvania Army National Guard while going to school for psychology and studying for a masters in social work. When it came time to re-enlist, Zimmerman instead decided to leave the army and focus on his clinical studies at the VA.


Zimmerman eventually took on the role of DPH here in early February 2017. The psychological health program was created by Congress, through the National Defense Appropriations Act of 2012. They started fielding positions in 2013 and Pittsburgh was one of the earliest bases to get the program sometime between 2013 and 2014.


LaBaron Stevens, military and family life counselor with the 911th AW, works hand-in-hand with Zimmerman to tackle mental health struggles on base. Stevens brings support for the servicemen and women for stress, anxiety, deployments and more. The MFLC offers help for military life as well as civilian and family life. Stevens and Zimmerman often work together to help individuals in need.


“If it gets too deep for me, then that's when I refer to Mr. Zimmerman, then he takes it to the next logical step,” said Stevens. “If someone's really depressed, and they say they want to end their life, God forbid, I would have to refer to Mr. Zimmerman and aid in a referral to him, so they can get help from him, either on base or off.”


While Zimmerman and Stevens can accomplish much together, they can’t be everywhere, said Zimmerman. Much of their work relies on wingmen caring for themselves and one another.


“I can tell you that there are plenty of folks who either thought about, or even attempted to die, that are doing really well because somebody noticed, and said hey, let's go talk to somebody, or they themselves, for whatever intrinsic reason said, you know what, not today,” said Zimmerman.


There are so many things that people think are showstoppers that actually aren’t, said Zimmerman. There is a misconception that the minute someone talks about their problems their career is over, but that's not true at all. The goal is to keep everyone in uniform. After all, there's no mission without people.


“That's the biggest thing, that demystification,” said Zimmerman. “I will educate you. I will confirm your myths and explain them. Or I will dispel them with reality and truth, and that in itself is amazingly beneficial.”


The biggest takeaway, according to Zimmerman, is that he understands what you may be going through. Airmen are encouraged to seek help.


 “We're really pushing this idea,” said Zimmerman. “It's actually pretty beneficial to come and take care of your brain too.”