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Women’s mental health mini residency engages with DHA/VA providers

Female soldier, leaning against a military vehicle, at sunset “I think it's important to understand the unique types of things women bring with them when they go into the deployment setting,” Jennifer Chow said on women’s mental health. “It’s OK to say that we’re not necessarily the same as men because we do have unique health factors to consider. But, our value and contribution to the unit is the same. So those unique concerns should be addressed.” (Photo by Staff Sgt. Ian Kummer, 40th Combat Aviation Brigade)

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A strong mind and body are essential for a medically ready military force.

Within the Department of Defense, the Military Health System maintains this force by providing quality health care to patients, including mental health care. Health care providers need to understand their patients and the unique health concerns of each to provide this care.

The Department of Defense uses channels like the Women’s Mental Health Mini Residency series to train its providers on these topics. The annual three-day training gives health care providers throughout the Department of Veterans Affairs and the DoD knowledge and skills to deliver gender-sensitive care to female patients. Typically held in person, the Defense Health Agency’s Psychological Health Center of Excellence and the VA co-hosted the event online for the first time Sept. 22-24.

Kate McGraw, acting division chief of PHCoE, explained how the VA and DoD collaboration on women’s needs regarding mental health began in 2011. From that work, the VA developed the mini residency out of a need to help providers better understand the mental health concerns unique to women service members and veterans.

“Women, although still minorities in the military and veteran populations, have contributed to fighting the battles that have challenged our nation for decades,” McGraw said, “but the focus on the health of women and how to address gender-specific mental health issues has not always had as much attention as would be optimal.”

Teams at the VA and PHCoE have been working together on the mini residency series for the last few years. Recently, the Department of Health and Human Services joined these efforts. Together, the teams look for gaps in women’s mental health care and share treatment, policy, and research advancements to address those gaps. McGraw said the women’s mental health training delivers presentations on state-of-the-art treatments and research for providers to best address the needs of women, whether service members or veterans.

During the September mini residency, mental health experts from the VA and DoD tackled topics from sexual health and dysfunction to intersectionality and cultural competence. Each speaker brought expertise about women’s mental health, including the key influences of sex, gender, and reproductive cycle stages.

During her session, Air Force Col. Jennifer Chow, deputy director of psychological health at the Air Force Medical Readiness Agency, shared deployment stressors unique to military women. Stressors range from dealing with equipment and uniforms not originally designed for women’s use to the heightened risk of interpersonal violence and reproductive concerns women face in the military.

“I think it's important to understand the unique types of things women bring with them when they go into the deployment setting,” Chow said. “It’s OK to say that we’re not necessarily the same as men because we do have unique health factors to consider. But, our value and contribution to the unit is the same. So those unique concerns should be addressed.”

Chow pointed out that some of those concerns can be addressed with honest communication between providers and their patients. To provide the best care, providers must consider the patient not just as a woman, but also as an individual.

“Everybody has their own unique story, whether you’re male or female,” Chow said, “and really trying to understand each person’s unique story is key to educating them on their health care options and providing them the best care.”

While this year’s online webinar format – altered due to the current COVID-19 pandemic – is more condensed than years past, McGraw hopes providers attend future sessions when the series returns to an in-person setting. Participation is open and voluntary for providers of any specialty in VA or DoD. The residency is designed to share knowledge and give providers a network for support and collaboration as well as tools they can put into practice at their clinic locations.

“There’s a lot of information in these webinars that will help providers improve their practice,” McGraw said. “To attend a training that actually helps providers better understand some of the specific differences that women service members and veterans experience and how those differences shape their mental health is really key for the provider to be tuned in to the individual that comes to them for care.”

For more information on the webinar series, visit PHCoE’s website.

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