Michigan Public Affairs sat down with the newest member of the health support team at Joint Forces Headquarters, Mrs. Heather Nystrom, the new director of psychological health to learn what she can do for members of the Michigan Guard family, what brought her to Michigan, and how she earned a commander’s coin in Korea.
Q1. MING PA – Thank you for sitting down today, can you start by telling us what inspired you to become a behavioral health specialist?
Heather Nystrom – I am prior service active duty (68X – Mental Health Specialist) and my first tour of duty was with the 2nd Infantry Division at Camp Casey, Korea. While there I was stationed with two very good behavioral health officers who became my mentors and really pushed me and pushed my limits and really helped me decide what I wanted to do with my life and my career; that is where my love for social work and working with military was developed. My passion now is to serve veterans, families and service members.
Q2. MP – How has your training, education and experience prepared you to be a behavioral health specialist with the Michigan National Guard?
HN – After my tour in Korea I completed my active duty time serving as an assistant ward master for an inpatient psych ward at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas. After leaving active duty I earned my MSW (Masters of Social Work) at Michigan State University and started working at Volunteers of America Michigan which is an organization that works with the most vulnerable members of the population; homeless, poverty, unemployed. I oversaw two of our programs which worked with homeless veterans and really developed a lot of relationships within the community working with organizations that help veterans and organizations within the National Guard like Family Programs. Being a veteran and a military spouse has really provided me insight as to what Soldiers struggle with.
Q3. MP – What does the Director of Psychological Health do exactly?
HN – I am still learning the specifics of the position but the main mission and vision is to develop the behavioral health services for the Michigan Guard, marketing behavioral health, working together with programs like Family Services, SARC (Sexual Assault Response Coordinator), and ASAP (Army Substance Abuse Program) to ensure Soldiers facing issues like mental health or substance abuse have a blanket of services provided to them. People can also have access to me for BHEs (behavioral health evaluation) or if there is an immediate mental health crisis where guidance needs to be issued or a referral made, I can provide that as well.
Q4. MP – So an individual Soldier or family member could contact you directly if they are experiencing difficulty?
HN – Of course, I am still really well connected (as a result of previous employment) with community groups that help service members that are at risk of homelessness or who are homeless or are struggling financially or are unemployed. These resources are very valuable and could mean a lot to a service member. Service members may also reach out to our two psychological health coordinators, Maria Bouhard or Martin Groom. Both have extensive experience serving National Guard service members.
Q5. MP – What would you say to a first line supervisor who identifies a potential behavioral health issue with a subordinate?
HN – First, I would praise that leader for supporting their service member and wanting to do something; in some ways mental health issues are like medical issues, if you do not do anything they will not get better. Then, I would encourage that leader to contact me directly, I can provide guidance and coach that leader on how to approach the Soldier and provide resources to help. Leaders know their Soldiers the best and I can coach them through providing assistance. I hope to eventually be able to provide education to units about how to identify signs of increased stress, depression and other potential issues.
Q6. MP – There are a large number of resources available to our service members, how is your service different than services provided by say a chaplain?
HN – It depends on what the Soldier wants, if they are more comfortable going to a chaplain then I say “go see your chaplain.” I come from a background of wrapping services together and not having silos for each service. We should work together to provide what is best for the service member, and his or her needs. We have a strong behavioral health team, now it is just a matter of marketing and increasing awareness within the Michigan National Guard.
Q7. MP – You were born and raised in Indiana, how did you end up in Michigan?
HN – I met my husband (Sgt. 1st Class Michael Nystrom, currently the readiness NCO for the 46th Military Police Command) while we were both stationed in Korea. He is from the Hastings area and, when I finished my last tour on active duty at Fort Bliss, Texas, we moved to Michigan so I could go to school and we could start a family.
Q8. MP – I heard you earned a commander’s coin in Korea, how did that happen?
HN – A Soldier in a unit about to deploy was struggling to deal with the loss of a family member. Prior to the passing, this Soldier was a solid performer, always upbeat and really contributed to his unit. Since the passing of the loved one, he had become withdrawn and wasn’t contributing the way he used too. His chain of command had tried a number of different counseling techniques but nothing seemed to help. His company commander sent him to me and, at the time, I was going through a similar situation in my life. We spent some time together talking through the issue and going over some strategies and the Soldier was returned to his unit. I honestly was unaware of what happened to him, until a few weeks later when his company commander came into my office and said “I don’t know what you did for that Soldier but he is back to his old self and I would like to present you my commander’s coin for being so much help to the unit.” I was glad to be able to help the Soldier.
Q9. MP – You have been involved in helping Soldiers in some capacity for more than 10 years, what have you noticed about behavioral health issues?
HN – Well, there is no such thing as a “cookie cutter” approach when it comes to mental health issues, every situation with a service member is different and I would like our behavior health team to be thought of as one more tool in a Soldier’s tool box to provide assistance. There is a lot of stigma around mental health that has been broken, which is awesome. I can tell you stories from my active duty days where Soldiers were thought of as “crazy” because they were stressed or depressed or anxious by people who just didn’t understand mental health. The situation is much better now and I am glad to play a role in continuing to improve the stigma around mental health.
Q10. MP – Thank you for the informative interview, how does someone get in touch with you?
HN – They can email me (firstname.lastname@example.org) or call my office (517-481-8101) or call my blackberry (313-207-1651) or they can stop in to our office in the Joint Forces Headquarters building, room 123. We have two very experienced Psychological Health Coordinators that can provide assistance as well. They are Martin Groom at 517-243-3116 or email@example.com, and Maria Bouharb at 313-957-6595 or firstname.lastname@example.org.