Individuals can start talking about it and more importantly ask questions. There is mental illness in most families. Stop using the word “crazy” to describe that family member. Find out the facts. Own your own mental health. Take care of yourself physically as well as mentally. They are not mutually exclusive.
As a part of my series about “Mental Health Champions” helping to normalize the focus on mental wellness, I had the pleasure to interview Dr. Samantha Dutton.
Dr. Dutton is an Associate Dean and the Director of the Social Work Program in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences at University of Phoenix, where she is creating the Bachelor of Science Social Work program. The program is currently in the accreditation process with the Council of Social Work Education. Previous to this position, she was the Deputy Commander of Medical Operations at Mike O’Callaghan Military Medical Center, Nevada as well as the Medical Squadron at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington. She also commanded the Mental Health Clinic at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada. Her military experience spans 27 years with increasing levels of leadership. She has been the recipient of numerous Air Force level awards and was deployed in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom where she was the lone mental health practitioner for 2,500 personnel.
Dr. Dutton’s passions include military transition, single parents serving in the military and ensuring veterans have access to services including mental health counseling. She has spoken in different forums surrounding these passions as well as publishing an article on single parents in the Air Force. Dr. Dutton created the military social work curriculum for another online education institution where she brought real world experience and research to the program.
Dr. Dutton lives in Chattanooga Tenn., is married and has four children and one granddaughter.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to this specific career path?
I grew up on a farm in Virginia. My parents married while still in high school and I was born during my father’s mid-term exams when he was a senior in high school. Even though my parents did not attend college, they encouraged me to go. I was not a star student, and I was unsure how I was going to make college happen.
I saw a commercial on television — an Air Force recruitment commercial. I joined as a way to pay for college. It never occurred to me to go into social work. In my aptitude test, I scored highest on mechanics. Everyone said I could not do mechanics, so I was determined to prove them wrong. That path was a difficult one. It was the 1980s and if there were sexual harassment policies, they did not enforce them.
I started college on a GI Bill. I did not have a clear career path and changed my major several times. I finally settled on social work because I found out there were jobs available as a child protection worker. Completing my master’s degree meant I would get a pay increase, so I continued my education. After that, it all seemed to fall into place and I received a commission with the Air Force as a social worker. Although it was not a straight path and there were many detours along the way, military social work was the correct fit for me.
I met some amazing people in the military. The men and women that serve and their families, are strong, resilient and brave. We are truly family and I will do anything to help another veteran or veteran family. After retirement, I entered higher education. Because of my military service, I am able to understand the unique pressures and circumstances our service men and women face. As part of the social work curriculum, I can provide new social workers with the tools to understand and help veterans in need.
According to Mental Health America’s report, over 44 million Americans have a mental health condition. Yet there’s still a stigma about mental illness. Can you share a few reasons you think this is so?
There is still a stigma about mental illness because no one talks about it. When I was a little girl, my grandmother’s best friend had cancer. Everyone whispered the word “cancer.” It was as if you might get it yourself if you said it aloud. Fast-forward to today and the NFL devotes a whole month to wearing pink for breast cancer. It is no longer a taboo topic unlike 40 years ago.
I truly believe that it takes a few people to be brave enough to share their story. It is especially helpful if they are people of power. In the military, when a commander would stand in front of his personnel and speak openly about mental health, it made a difference. Personnel in those particular units were not afraid to speak to mental health practitioners. It was viewed the same as going to the doctor for a cold or a sore throat. Smart commanders knew that dealing with a cold was much better than dealing with pneumonia.
Just as every person knows someone that has had cancer, every person knows someone that is dealing with a mental illness. Unless we as a society accept that mental health is as important as physical health, we will continue to stigmatize mental health.
Can you tell our readers about how you are helping to de-stigmatize the focus on mental wellness?
I like to call it “pushing the conversation.” Not only pushing the conversation in a public forum, but also within my own community and family. I want the people around me to have the facts and be able to spread the word inside their networks. A recent survey we conducted at University of Phoenix found 58 percent of veterans said that they would be encouraged to seek professional counseling if a close colleague, friend or family member spoke about their experience receiving counseling. We can influence people around us simply by sharing our struggles.
I have also conducted two satellite media tours and several interviews on the topic of stigma within the military and first responders and have shared survey data about their perceptions of mental health. At University of Phoenix, we have proudly collaborated with Give an Hour, which is an organization that offers free mental health counseling to veterans and first responders. In addition to support and services, Give an Hour provides resources to help you recognize the signs of mental distress in yourself and others.
Was there a story behind why you decided to launch this initiative?
This topic is important to me because of my experience with the military personnel and veterans I encountered while I was serving in the military. I am always looking for ways to help push the conversation and University of Phoenix provided me with a platform. In our survey, we found that 90 percent of active duty military personal say mental health is as important as physical health, and 91 percent of active-duty service members say that their leadership openly discusses the importance of addressing mental health concerns. I have to say I am not surprised. The military has come a long way in addressing this stigma, although they have a ways to go. Old stereotypes and stigmas associated with mental health counseling might be preventing veterans from acquiring the help they need. Still, the civilian community could learn a lot from the military. The military wants a healthy soldier, airman, Marine and seaman, and they understand that includes both physical and mental health.
In your experience, what should a) individuals b) society, and c) the government do to better support people suffering from mental illness?
- Individuals can start talking about it and more importantly ask questions. There is mental illness in most families. Stop using the word “crazy” to describe that family member. Find out the facts. Own your own mental health. Take care of yourself physically as well as mentally. They are not mutually exclusive.
- Society needs to normalize mental health. Society does not have an issue speaking about going to the doctor for the flu or going to the dentist for a toothache. Mental health should be as normal as taking care of your physical health. Speak out loud and don’t whisper. You have to take care of your mental health.
- I believe some areas of the government are doing a great job at chipping away at the stigma, such as the Department of Defense. Of course, more work needs to be done, but they are working toward a solution. I think there should be public service announcements, much like the “quit tobacco” campaign or the “don’t use drugs” campaign. Having an awareness campaign that addresses the stigma of mental health could open up a dialogue with families and society.
What are your 6 strategies you use to promote your own wellbeing and mental wellness? Can you please give a story or example for each?
- While on active duty as a clinical social worker, I always wanted to live at least 30 minutes from the base. In those 30 minutes, I would “process” the day. Sometimes that meant driving in silence, crying, laughing, listening to heavy metal music, listening to country music, etc. I needed to make the transition to mom and wife before I got out of my car. I never wanted my work life to interfere with my home life.
- I have a few trusted friends that I can vent with about my work and/or personal frustrations. One of my best friends happens to be my husband. It took some time for him not to act on my venting, but now he just nods and makes appropriate noises as I tell him about something that is bothering me. In reverse, when he vents, he wants me to do something or help him with something. Having a friend or relative that is able to understand you so well is hard to find, but when you do find that person, life is so much better.
- This may not work for everyone because of personal choices or because it would interfere with a treatment plan, but I like to have a glass of wine while I cook dinner. I like to listen to music while I cook and maybe dance a little depending on the song that is playing.
- Exercise. I know what you are thinking — “Of course she will say exercise. She is a retired military officer and that is just who she is.” Well, let me tell you that I am not that person and I have always struggled with exercise. I would dread being tested every year for physical fitness in the military. I would pass, but just barely. After retirement, I swore I would never run again and then three years later I gained over 40 pounds. I have since lost the weight by changing my diet, but more importantly by going back to the gym. I do not have the added burden of being tested and it is still hard to fit the workout in my schedule. However, I cannot discount how I feel after working out. I am more energized and positive on the days I work out.
- While on active duty, I moved every two or three years. It kept the work I was doing “fresh.” After retirement, it has been difficult to find ways to keep my brain challenged. I have a great job now, but the struggle is still there to try new things. I have had to channel that energy in other places. Some of those include helping reduce mental health stigma and connecting with my fellow veterans.
- I find comfort in routine. I would never make my bed, after all you just messed it up again twelve hours later. Within the last year, I have made several changes to my routine. One of them is making the bed, doing all the dishes before going to bed, laundry on Thursday, and groceries on Fridays, just to name a few. I find the routine allows me to free up my mind to focus on things that are not as mundane as laundry. My office is in my bedroom and I really like knowing the bed is made. If I do not accomplish anything all day, I still made the bed.
What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources that inspire you to be a mental health champion?
The podcast and blog “Rescuing the Rescuer” inspires me to continue the conversation about mental health. It puts a spotlight on problems and solutions that our first responders are facing and is doing a great job pushing the conversation.
I also love documentaries and there are some great ones on mental health. One documentary that I recommend is “Into the Light.” It tells the story of a marine returning from Afghanistan with the invisible injuries of war who meets a therapist who is confronting her own family issues with mental health. It is one of those stories that you think will go a certain way and surprises you by heading into a different direction. Ultimately, it ends up being a story about trust and feeling safe to tell our stories.
Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!