Young Airman helps to destigmatize mental health

  • Published
  • By A1C Leandra Garcia
  • 33rd Fighter Wing Public Affairs

Growing up in a Hispanic household, mental health was not openly talked about. There is a deep-rooted belief in Hispanic culture that if you live a good life and work hard, you have no reason to have mental health struggles – if you did, you would be seen as weak. It was a topic my family didn’t understand until I joined the military.

I always suspected I had ADHD, but coming from a family that struggles with addiction, medication was something that scared me, so I never went through the process of getting diagnosed, and I didn’t know other options were available. It was never a huge problem for me until about a year into my enlistment.

I have spent my time in the military trying to overcome the cultural bias I had ingrained in me and educating myself on the realities of mental health. I developed a good relationship with myself; I learned how to deal with the way my mind works and was doing great … until I wasn’t.

I became anxious and when I wasn’t anxious I was apathetic. My mental health outside of work started dwindling but with no obvious cause for the change, I pretended I was okay. If I could convince others, maybe I could convince myself.

It was the summer of 2021, I ran into my office in a sweaty panic thinking I had missed an interview for a story I was writing – I was on the brink of tears. This would be my first big mistake in the military.

The only person in my office was an Airman I worked with and I immediately began to overshare. I explained that I had missed the interview and didn’t know what to do. I knew I had to explain this to my interviewee and I was freaking out. I was about to call the tech sergeant I needed to interview, with no real explanation other than I forgot about our meeting. I quickly logged into my computer to find his contact information and was not excited to see I had an unread email from him. I was expecting an email with my supervisor courtesy copied, reprimanding me for my mistake. Instead, he was thanking me for the opportunity to tell his story and sent me more detailed information that I may have missed during the interview.

This was the first time I realized I was missing time.

To this day, I don’t remember conducting the interview at all, but I have the audio to prove it. I was there, but I wasn’t. I had plenty of situations like this and it continued to happen more frequently making it harder to ignore.

I attributed it to stress or my usual forgetfulness and tried to just brush it off, but people started noticing. My officer in charge expressed the things she was noticing that didn’t seem normal, so we had a long talk about mental health and how struggling is okay. After this talk, I confided all of my concerns about my health to my shop and asked that they help monitor me and let me know if they noticed anything concerning. That day, they expressed all the things they had been noticing but hadn’t told me yet. It was hard hearing about the things they noticed and I wasn’t hiding it as great as I thought I was. After getting through the negative feelings I experienced from the feedback, I felt grateful for them and scared for myself. My fears were validated. I couldn’t ignore them for much longer.

I began to keep a log of my symptoms and I quickly came to the realization that it was worse than I thought. The feedback my team gave me helped me realize the things I had accepted as quirks about myself were actually symptoms. Eventually, these ‘quirks’ began to slowly affect my job.

Our projects and priorities change daily in public affairs. It was hard for me to manage what I was supposed to be doing and when I did manage, I could not get myself to complete tasks. I was easily overwhelmed and distracted. Any over- or under-stimulation hit me like a truck. With a million things running through my mind at all times, keeping something there felt impossible. I didn’t know it wasn’t normal to not remember most of your childhood, or your day, for that matter. To not be able to appreciate something without obsessing over it, uncontrollably talking over people when overstimulated, sleeping at least 11 hours a day. These are just some of the symptoms I didn’t realize were symptoms until I was told not everyone functioned this way or had these urges.

After a few weeks, with the help of my shop and my family back home, I decided it would be in my best interest to seek medical attention.

The military is currently trying to break the stigma behind seeking help for your mental health but it's a deep-rooted problem that cannot be fixed by an email and a slideshow. The stigma is not just “How will this affect my job?” it's also “How will people look at/treat me?” and feeling ashamed for not being able to fix these things on your own.

As Airmen, we want to be seen as trustworthy, strong and dependable. We are the biggest asset the military has, yet we still refuse to treat ourselves like it. The Air Force has a variety of resources so you can choose the option that you are most comfortable with.

The process of getting help has been the most pleasant experience I have had with military healthcare. First, I spoke with my primary care manager about my symptoms and she gave me her unofficial diagnosis and referred me to a psychologist who did numerous tests and surveys. After a few weeks, I was officially diagnosed with anxiety and ADHD.

I was initially anti-medication and took the therapy route, but after continued talks with my PCM and my family members, I felt educated enough to take medications. My PCM was aware of my family history so she started me at a low dose for my comfort. Once I worked up to the correct dose of medications that worked for me, it was like night and day. I felt like I could actually process my thoughts for the first time in years and my every action was not caused because of anxiety. I feel normal.

It was a long journey to find the correct medications and some days, the side effects of a medication were worse than my original symptoms. My office was understanding through it all. Some days I had to telework and some days I was awful to work with because the medications took control of my emotions, but they continued to help me through my journey. They were there for me with whatever I needed, supporting me in whatever aspects I needed. The 96th Medical Group also worked with me every step of the way answering any questions and comforting my concerns. I found a therapist I liked and I still go every few weeks even when I feel like I am okay.

While initially terrifying, getting help was the best thing I could’ve done for myself. It has not taken any opportunities from me, it has provided them. The experiences I have in the military are a reflection of my hard work and my hard work is a reflection of my mental health. Had I not gotten the help, I would not be the Airman I am today.

I don’t think I would have gotten help without someone voicing their concern for me. I was lucky enough to trust my team with the things happening in my head and they encouraged me to get help and informed me of the mental health resources the Air Force offers. Had they not been there for me that might have changed the whole ending to my story.

I am an active duty member of the military who is medicated and fully capable of doing my duties. I am happy, healthy and continuing to advocate for people to seek mental health.