Mental health workers find ‘rampant’ hopelessness, exhaustion in Navy

Four sailors in the same Navy command in Norfolk, Virginia appeared to have died by suicide in less than a month. It’s the second time in a year that the Navy has been confronted with a rash of suicide deaths. Kayla Arestivo, co-founder of the nonprofit Trails of Purpose, joins Geoff Bennett to discuss the ongoing mental health crisis within the military.

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  • Geoff Bennett:

    Four Navy sailors appears to have died by suicide over the course of less than a month in the same Navy command in Norfolk, Virginia. This is the second time in a year that the Navy has been confronted with a rash of suicide deaths. It launched an investigation this past spring, after three sailors on the crew of the USS Washington died within one week of each other. Kayla Arestivo joins us now, she co-founded the nonprofit Trails of Purpose, which provides free mental health treatment to service members.

    And Kayla, you were among those brought into that naval command in Norfolk to help the sailors there. What were you hearing from service members?

    Kayla Arestivo, Co-Founder, Trails of Purpose: We were brought in as an external resource to the Navy and the abundant amount of hopelessness that was exhibited at that command and just in the ways that I was able to speak with the sailors directly.

    You know, it was very apparent to myself and my clinical team that hopelessness and exhaustion and the sense of purposelessness was just, you know, rampant throughout the sailors that that command.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Is the Navy's leadership, is the leadership at that command station, are they how are they responding to this?

  • Kayla Arestivo:

    I'm an external resource. But as of now, from the inside sailors that I've spoken with, they have brought in chaplains, and they have brought in professional mental health counselors to be on site there, I believe, five days a week now.

    And while they are making strides to do that, and I commend that effort, so much of the hopelessness has been breeding within that work environment for such a long time. And so, you know, a couple of weeks of mental health professionals being on site or, you know, having chaplains there may not fix the issue, all that quickly.

    And so we still need to be on alert of what can we do that is going to be a long term solution. How can we change this that's going to make sure that we don't have another rash of suicides.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    To your point about the sense of hopelessness looking at the data, the number of sailors who deserted the Navy, more than doubled from 2019 to 2021. While desertions and other military branches dropped or stayed flat.

    And there are advocates who say that the Navy's nearly unbreakable contracts, which can require up to six years of active duty that that leaves some sailors feeling trapped. Did you pick that up in any of your conversations?

  • Kayla Arestivo:

    I would say yes, the feeling of being trapped or stuck is absolutely there within the Navy. When I speak to sailors and for example, I spoke with them. Maybe just about an hour ago today, I spoke with one who is leaving the military on Tuesday. And you know when I said oh, good for you. And I was like, Well, I'm sorry, I take that back. Maybe it's not good for you. Maybe you don't want to be leaving the Navy. Because sometimes people are typically asked to leave the Navy if they're younger, because they have medical concerns or performance concerns, or they've gotten in some type of trouble that requires them to be leaving the military.

    However, the overwhelming response that I'm finding from sailors in the Navy that are leaving the Navy earlier than they expected, they're like, No, it's a good thing I want to get out of the Navy, I want to get the heck out of there. And so that's a surprising thing to hear when people have maybe those sailors signed up four years ago to serve their country and they were passionate about it. And they wanted that purpose and then to hear maybe on the flip side, how quickly their minds were changed.

    Now I can't speak to the reason for that for every sailor, but I think that that's absolutely something that we need to be focusing on. We need to ask our policymakers what's going on. Let's dig in here. Let's figure out what the retention rates are. Why they're taking such a plummet within the United States Navy.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    It's interesting, you know, in speaking with Pentagon officials and events speaking with you the thing I heard was that, you know, the military has changed many of its policies in recent years to encourage better mental health or certainly greater awareness. But from where you sit, what barriers remain?

  • Kayla Arestivo:

    Yes, absolutely. And I would say, as a nation, we're doing better at recognizing mental health care. And the Navy also is doing so. And so here's the thing, the Navy is there to do the defense of the United States of America, it is not to be a mental health care facility. And so they're putting into place these resources which are available.

    Additionally, I would say that the staffing is way below what it needs to be. And so while we have these resources, there are wait times for three to six months and in that time, what's going to happen to somebody who needed mental health care immediately. So the staffing the stigmas, the fear of retaliation. These are just a few of probably the dozens that we could identify as barriers to mental health care within the military.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Kayla Arestivo is co-founder of the nonprofit Trails of Purpose, which provides mental health resources to service members. Kayla, thanks for your time.

  • Kayla Arestivo:

    Thank you.

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