A barrier has been lifted for Air Force pilots to seek mental health care

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Learn more about Christopher Vidaurre.
Christopher Vidaurre
Senior Program Manager, Veterans and Military Families
George W. Bush Institute
U.S. Air Force Airmen assigned to the 366th Logistics Readiness Squadron prepare to load equipment onto a C-17 Globemaster III at Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho, March 28, 2024. The 62nd Airlift Wing was transporting Airmen and equipment from the 388th Fighter Wing during an agile combat employment exercise. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman Keagan Lee)

The U.S. Air Force recently took a giant step forward in keeping its pilots mentally healthy by empowering them to receive up to 60 days of mental health treatment without being grounded. 

This major policy update has ramifications far beyond the individual pilots. Reducing the perceived consequences of seeking treatment will promote resilience, support a reduction in suicide, and ensure America has a fighting force that is mission ready. And it can benefit the entire U.S. Armed Forces and military families. 

The Air Force’s policy update represents great progress. It prioritizes mental health, supports our servicemembers, and promotes resilience. The move comes shortly after the passage of the Brandon Act, which created a process for servicemembers to confidentially refer themselves for a mental health evaluation. 

This Mental Health Awareness Month, we must applaud the work that has been done while also advocating to expand these efforts throughout the Armed Forces. That includes promoting tools such as Check-In, powered by the Veteran Wellness Alliance, which provides access to high quality no cost mental and brain health care for military, veteran and their families. 

Veterans still struggle with the stigma of seeking care, which is a battle we must face head-on. More than 6,000 veterans die from suicide each year, with the figure climbing almost 12% in 2021 from 2020, according to the 2023 National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report from the Department of Veterans Affairs.  

The revised Air Force policy and The Brandon Act are both designed to help reduce suicide rates and to encourage servicemembers to seek care openly and quickly, critical steps in preventing unnecessary loss of life. By addressing mental health concerns early, servicemembers can enhance their long-term success, both during their time in service and when they transition into veteran status. Reducing the stigma around seeking care will also lead to a mentally healthier more resilient veteran community.  

In the Air Force, grounding disrupts training and eligibility for various duties assignments and opportunities. The policy change ensures that seeking care doesn’t slow professional performance and that our fighting force is mission ready at a moment’s notice. 

By allowing pilots to seek care without career repercussions, the Air Force sends a clear signal: Seeking mental health care is a sign of strength, not weakness. And when pilots transition into veterans, such a mindset will lead to the recognition and to the importance of mental health to one’s overall well-being.  

When servicemembers can access care without jeopardizing their careers, it also positively affects their families, who often assume the emotional burden of deployments, long absences, and secondary trauma. A healthier, mentally resilient military community benefits everyone involved and carries beyond military service and into life out of uniform. 

The new Air Force policy emphasizes that mental health is an essential aspect to one’s overall well-being – one just as important as physical health. By removing barriers to care and encouraging its personnel to seek it, the Air Force is promoting a necessary shift in mindset that will help create a more understanding and supportive culture.  

To honor those who have served and are serving, let’s continue to break down barriers, promote well-being, and create a culture where seeking mental health care is not only accepted but encouraged during military service and beyond. 

Chris Vidaurre is Senior Program Manager of Veterans and Military Families at the George W. Bush Institute.