A Matter of Life or Death: Seeking Help and Overcoming

  • Published
  • By Senior Master Sgt. Beth Holliker
  • 180th Fighter Wing

SWANTON, OH -- “I was highly suicidal and I told my husband that if he didn’t take me to the hospital, I wasn’t going to continue to live.”

For Tech. Sgt. Jilayne Michelsen, a Command Post Control Operations Specialist, assigned to the Ohio National Guard’s 180th Fighter Wing, having the ability to ask her husband for help during her darkest hour, saved her life, her family and her military career.

“I did not know what I was experiencing when it initially happened,” said Michelsen. “It was my first panic attack that sent me into a never-ending spiral.”

Michelsen knew something was wrong shortly after the birth of her second child, in 2015, and with the support of her husband, she was admitted to a local-area hospital and diagnosed with severe postpartum depression, anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

“To be completely candid,” Michelsen continued, “It was a matter of life or death. Because I hold a top secret security clearance, I knew I might be jeopardizing my career by having myself admitted, but I really wanted to live and I simply didn’t know how to continue on in the state I was in. I needed help.”

Following in the footsteps of her three older sisters who also serve in the active duty Air Force and Air National Guard, Michelsen enlisted into the ANG in 2007, with plans to use the ANG’s tuition assistance program to put herself through college.

As a command post controller, Michelsen is responsible for ensuring the success and continuity of the 180FW’s NORAD Aerospace Control Alert mission, as well as maintaining command and control of and reporting on the wing’s assets and personnel to state and national higher headquarters, during day-to-day operations and during crisis situations such as natural disasters and aircraft mishaps.

“My favorite part of the job is the importance it holds,” said Michelsen. “In the event of an emergency, we serve as an information hub, responsible for time-sensitive activities. As an operations center, our role is critical to the success of many major affairs. Some days can be monotonous, but when something significant happens, you know your actions play a vital part in the bigger picture.”

Passionate about her job, Michelsen knew there was a good chance she could lose her security clearance and her position as a command post controller after sharing her story with her chain of command.

“I wanted to be completely honest and I knew I had to tell my supervisor what had happened,” Michelsen said. “I don’t regret that decision at all. I believe my honesty helped my supervisor to better understand my situation during my months of recovery as I worked with our Director of Psychological Health and a civilian mental health practitioner.”

Today, Michelsen continues to focus on her mental health while successfully balancing fulltime military service with the 180FW command post and raising her family.

“I’ve learned to recognize that maintaining wholesome mental health is a lifelong process that we need to continue to nourish,” Michelsen said. “And that may look different for everyone.”

“I have to prepare myself, on a daily basis to meet my life and military requirements,” Michelsen continued. “I try to take at least 30 minutes each day to do something that makes me happy. Sometimes it’s reading a book or scrolling through social media. Sometimes it’s meditating or just taking a long shower. I give myself that small window of time to settle, start or reset.”

Along with taking the time for self-care each day, Michelsen utilizes a variety of coping techniques to balance any stressful situations that come her way, including a favorite mantra, reminding her that things will always get better.

“A big mantra, or affirmation, I like to remember is that nothing in life is permanent,” said Michelsen. “No matter how terrible things may get, they won’t always be that way. Time will pass, things will change and nothing I’m feeling, or dealing with, will stay that way forever.”

While the topic of mental health in the military was often considered taboo in the past, that culture has changed, in a positive direction, in recent years, most notably with the 2010 decision to assign fulltime Directors of Psychological Health to ANG bases across the country.

The 180FW’s DPH, Mrs. Alina Fuller, came on board in early 2011 and has been safeguarding the mental wellbeing of our Airmen as her top priority. Mrs. Fuller continues to provide support, services, referrals, training and resources to the wing’s nearly 1,300 members, as well as providing continuous education to senior leaders across the wing to recognize struggling Airmen and ensuring the wing maintains a supportive environment for those seeking help.

Working with the DPH and her civilian mental health provider, Michelsen learned that she was not alone in her struggles and makes every effort to share her story so that other Airmen will know they are not alone either.

“I believe that my experience with mental health issues impacts how I interact with other service members,” explained Michelsen. “I have always been very open and honest about my struggles, in an attempt to help others know they are not alone. I also think it’s important that the people you work with are aware of your history, or current situation, so they can keep an eye on you and be there to help when needed.”

Michelsen says that her mental health journey has impacted her life in many ways, both positively and negatively, with the positive far outweighing the negative.

“My mental health struggles have definitely impacted my life,” Michelsen said. “On the negative side, I still carry a lot of guilt from that period of my life. I don’t remember much of the time spent with my children during that first year after my son was born. I’m certain I was unpleasant to be around and I had several strained relationships during that time.”

“However, I wouldn’t change a single moment of it,” continued Michelsen. “I have had so much positivity come from the events surrounding my diagnosis. I have developed a multitude of coping mechanisms to address my anxiety, depression and OCD. I have gained the ability to help others by being open with my struggles. I have taught my children ways to recognize and mitigate feelings of anxiety and depression. Most importantly, I have proven to myself that I am stronger than I ever knew imaginable.”

As a noncommissioned officer who has also battled mental health struggles, Michelsen knows how important it is to look out for her fellow Airmen, recognize when someone may be struggling and how to support them when needed, using the three simple steps provided during annual suicide prevention training, A.C.E – Ask. Care. Escort.

“As leaders, it is important to be able to recognize when someone may be struggling,” said Michelsen. “We need to be able to sit down with them, ask what is going in and listen. We need to assure them that there is no need to fear negative repercussions for seeking help. And we need to be able to identify what type of support they may need and help them get to the proper professionals who can provide them with the resources needed.”

Michelsen hopes that by sharing her story and struggles, others will know they are not alone. There is hope and not to fear seeking help.

“I have one piece of advice for Airmen who may be struggling with potential mental health issues,” said Michelsen. “Do not wait until your struggles become too much for you to carry on your own. Seek help as soon as you feel you need it and know that the military is so much more understanding and supportive today. Know that your mental wellbeing is something you will carry with you for a lifetime and it should be your number one priority.”

“If you are, or think you may be struggling,” continued Michelsen. “Find your DPH, your chaplain or your primary care practitioner. Utilize Military OneSource. Just don’t wait or it could be a matter of life or death.”

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If you or someone you know may be struggling with a mental health issue please consider using the following resources to seek help and treatment.

Military/Veteran Crisis Line: 1-800-273-8255 press 1

www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org

Text 838255