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I go; fighting the Mental Health stigma

Maj. Michael Barlow, 614th Combat Training Squadron director of operations, poses for a portrait May 4, 2020, at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. As a part of Mental Health Awareness Month, Barlow shared his personal journey with mental health during his Air Force career. Barlow hopes to inspire those who have not yet sought help as he shares his courage with the world. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Aubree Owens)

Maj. Michael Barlow, 614th Combat Training Squadron director of operations, poses for a portrait May 4, 2020, at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. As a part of Mental Health Awareness Month, Barlow shared his personal journey with mental health during his Air Force career. Barlow hopes to inspire those who have not yet sought help as he shares his courage with the world. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Aubree Owens)

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. --

I am Maj Michael Barlow. I am an Airman in the United States Air Force, Director of Operations at the 614th Combat Training Squadron, and I go to Mental Health.

While I am a private person and typically have no desire to share my personal life with the world, I have realized that silence on this issue is not only not working; it’s having lethal effects. That’s not something that I can be a part of, so I end my silence here.

In all honesty, my silence ended several months ago when I first shared my story publicly with my unit. It was late 2019, and Air Force suicide numbers were trending higher than ever before. We didn’t know it then, but we would finish the year with a 33% increase from 2018 and the highest number on record – 137. We lost one of our Wingmen roughly every three days.

When it came to my mental health, I had known for years that something was wrong, but it was only within the past couple of years that I finally decided to seek diagnosis and treatment at the Mental Health Clinic at my previous base. 

Up until then, at various points in my 12 years in the Air Force, I’d gone to leadership to notify them that I thought I needed to be seen at Mental Health. To this day, I believe they genuinely had my interests at heart when they each said, more or less, “I’m not telling you not to go, but know that if you do, you’ll likely lose your security clearance and possibly end your career. Do you want to do that to your family?” 

Get help or stay… but not both. It seemed like a self-elimination program disguised as treatment and relief. 

Still, at the 12-year point, for various reasons, I decided I needed to go regardless of the negative repercussions, and I hoped for the best. I told my supervisor in advance, but this time it wasn’t to ask permission or get their thoughts on the matter. I was going.

My first question to the mental health provider was about the security clearance and career repercussions that I’d always been told would follow. I was told that this was a thing of the past. Over the next few weeks, there were tests, then a diagnosis, and finally a pharmaceutical regimen that I was told would be a lifelong companion. All fixed, or getting there at least.

Security clearance, check. Career, check. Stigma, check.

That last one you weren’t expecting, right? Doesn’t quite fit in the list, does it? But you know it does. We all know it does. I get to keep my clearance and my job, but the deal is for all three.

Except, I respectfully decline. I will keep the first two. Those are mine. I earned them. But the stigma I don’t accept. I won’t accept. And I don’t mind if you take that as a challenge. Please do. Resist. Insist. The more you do, the faster this stigma will end, and the sooner we can begin addressing mental health in an open and positive manner.

I go to Mental Health. I’m looking you dead in the eyes as I say that. And I’m going to say it more. I’m going to say it a lot, and I’m going to say it publicly. I’m going to do that until others start saying it, too, and start giving back all that stigma that they don’t want and they don’t need because it doesn’t belong to them. It belongs to those of us who insist that it’s part of the deal. But it’s not anymore. Because… I go.

I don’t think for a second that my openly embracing my mental health struggles and encouraging others to do the same is going to completely stop the loss of our friends and family to suicide. It isn’t going to bring back those 137 we lost last year, one of whom I knew well—Michael. But I’d be willing to bet that for every ten or hundred or whatever the number is who step out of the shadows, raise their hands, and say, “I go,” we lose one less this year because they see us and they hear us and they join us because they know it’s safe to go.