Recruiting chaplains to connect with young sailors could be a good way to improve mental health without any social stigma
The US Navy plans to deploy more chaplains as regular crew members aboard ships in a bid to tackle growing mental health distress that has led to a wave of suicides, reported Thursday. the Associated Press.
The Navy plans to have 47 chaplains aboard ships based at Naval Station Norfolk, Va., over the next two years, up from 37 currently.
The chaplains deployed are both naval officers and clergy of various faiths, AP said, but have only been consistently employed on the largest aircraft carriers – with up to 5,000 personnel.
The goal, according to the outlet, is for clergy “get in touch with sailors, believers or not, in complete confidentiality”, noting that the approach has led to several cases in which chaplains have been able “to deter sailors from suicidal crises.”
The Navy reported a total of 70 suicides in 2022 alone — the second-highest annual number in more than a decade, according to military data.
Asked in January about the problem keeping him awake at night, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michel Gilday replied “suicide”. The mental health problem, he said, was a “thorny problem” for the Navy.
Family members of two young men who died by suicide in Norfolk said having chaplains available to talk to could make it easier to access mental health care “without stigma or retaliation.” At the same time, there must be accountability and “a chain of command committed to eliminating bullying and involving younger generations”, they said, according to AP.
A challenge for sailors is that most communications are prohibited at sea for security reasons, “lest a Russian frigate appear while you’re texting mom,” Captain David Thames, an Episcopal priest who manages chaplains for the Navy’s surface fleet in the Atlantic, explained.
Gilday named so-called “adjustment disorder” as the most common mental health diagnosis among sailors during a budget hearing Wednesday at the House Appropriations Committee’s Defense Subcommittee. Investing in chaplains can help “separating the stress of life from mental illness” and getting the right care for sailors, he said.
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