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First Military Mental Health Symposium A Success

December 11, 2023

Natchaug Hospital’s first Military Mental Health Symposium, held Dec. 1 in Norwich, was a day of sharing important information and resources about mental health services for active and retired military personnel in Connecticut.

It was also a day for sharing deeply personal stories among audience members of their own mental health struggles.

Carla Schnitzlein, DO, medical director at Natchaug Hospital and the driver behind organizing the day-long symposium, was not surprised at the level of sharing that took place.

“I think we were able to create a forum where those attending felt comfortable sharing their experiences, which really added to the impact of the day,” she said. “I was surprised by how many did share and am grateful they were moved to do so.”

The program included speakers who shared their journeys, including retired Army Sgt. First Class Scott Hamby. A highly decorated serviceman whose tours of duty brought him around the world and into combat, Hamby shared that after retirement he had to deal with the fallout from his physical injuries, as well as his depression and PTSD.

“I was 20 years old when I enlisted in 1998,” he said. “As a soldier, you have no autonomy. You have no questions. And five years after my retirement, I was in an existential crisis because I didn’t know who I was or what my given task and purpose were.”

He lost friends and comrades to both battle wounds and suicide, and he himself sought treatment when he realized he could not solve his issues alone.

Tessa Harrington shared her story of her Army National Guard husband John’s suicide in January of 2023 when he was on the eve of his third deployment. They had two young children. She launched a podcast, “Died by Suicide,” to explore the issues related to military suicides and also as a way to help herself heal.

“I knew he was struggling, I knew he was drinking more and more,” she said. “But when he died, it was a surprise to us all. I encourage anyone who is struggling to take that first step and tell somebody you’re struggling.”

Leah Russack-Baker, EdD, a clinician with Natchaug Hospital’s Partial Hospitalization Program called Care Plus, shared her family history – her grandfather landed at Normandy on D-Day in World War II and her father was a submariner for 30 years – and how their careers and experiences impacted her family as a whole. Care Plus works closely with Naval Submarine Base New London to support the mental health needs of its service members.

More than 50 people attended the symposium, representing providers within Hartford HealthCare as well as community partners across eastern Connecticut. Sessions included an explanation of the Army’s Behavioral Health Fitness Standards and one emergency department doctor’s strategies for helping a service member who presents in the ED with suicidal ideation. Each session sparked robust conversations and sharing of information among the group.

Dr. Schnitzlein said she was pleased with the back-and-forth during each presentation.

“It demonstrated the engagement and enthusiasm folks have for tackling mental health issues critical to service members, veterans, and their families,” she said. “The questions the speakers received made it clear folks were hungry to learn more about how to help this population.”

The biggest takeaway for her from the day was that “we need to keep having these discussions – both in a forum such as this symposium, but also on a smaller scale. Natchaug has already decided that we will hold the first Friday in December for our next Military Mental Health Symposium so more people have time to plan and attend.”