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How to thrive emotionally during a pandemic: Wing mental health pros offer tips

A.J. Byerly, 193rd Special Operations Wing director of psychological health, displays encouraging notes on the base's dining facility wall Sept. 19, 2020. The initiative is part of the wing's "Connect to Protect" suicide prevention and mental health awareness campaign in September. The notes demonstrate building a wall of support for fellow Airmen. (Air National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Rachel Loftis/Released)

A.J. Byerly, 193rd Special Operations Wing director of psychological health, displays encouraging notes on the base's dining facility wall Sept. 19, 2020. The initiative is part of the wing's "Connect to Protect" suicide prevention and mental health awareness campaign in September. The notes demonstrate building a wall of support for fellow Airmen. (Air National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Rachel Loftis/Released)

Jolene Richardson (left) and A.J. Byerly (right), both directors of psychological health for the 193rd Special Operations Wing, encourage Airmen to write supportive notes during a suicide prevention month activity at the wing dining facility Sept. 19, 2020. The handwritten notes were placed on the wall to demonstrate building a wall of support for fellow Airmen. (Air National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Rachel Loftis/Released)

Jolene Richardson (left) and A.J. Byerly (right), both directors of psychological health for the 193rd Special Operations Wing, encourage Airmen to write supportive notes during a suicide prevention month activity at the wing dining facility Sept. 19, 2020. The handwritten notes were placed on the wall to demonstrate building a wall of support for fellow Airmen. (Air National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Rachel Loftis/Released)

Jolene Richardson (left), 193rd Special Operations Wing director of psychological health, speaks with an Airman during a suicide prevention month activity at the wing dining facility Sept. 19, 2020. Airmen were asked to write encouraging notes to be placed on a wall to collectively demonstrate building a wall of support. (Air National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Rachel Loftis/Released)

Jolene Richardson (left), 193rd Special Operations Wing director of psychological health, speaks with an Airman during a suicide prevention month activity at the wing dining facility Sept. 19, 2020. Airmen were asked to write encouraging notes to be placed on a wall to collectively demonstrate building a wall of support. (Air National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Rachel Loftis/Released)

MIDDLETOWN, Pa. --

Isolation … fear … uncertainty … pervasively negative inputs. These common threads in today’s COVID-19 world have taken their toll on the collective mental health of Americans. And the military population is no exception.

In conjunction with National Suicide Prevention Month, the 193rd SOW is fighting back. The wing recently launched its “Connect to Protect” campaign, an initiative that highlights the importance of reaching out and connecting with others.

“Relationships are the biggest protective factor in the prevention of suicide,” said Jolene Richardson, director of psychological health at the wing’s geographically separated units in State College and Fort Indiantown Gap.

Richardson pointed to two key contributing factors to suicide, which include a perceived unmet need for connectedness and perceived burden-ness to others.  

We place an emphasis on taking care of yourself first and also checking in with others regularly, said A.J. Byerly, 193rd SOW DPH in Middletown.

Although it’s not always instinctual, self-care should come first, Byerly said.

“Getting outside, meditating, exercising, participating in enjoyable activities … these can all contribute to improved mental health,” she said.

“Also consider limiting your media exposure – and your kids’ media exposure,” Richardson said.

Seeking help and resources early is also important.

“It doesn’t’ have to be at crisis level for you to reach out to us,” Richardson noted.

“We’re here to reduce the stigma attached to seeking mental health support,” Byerly added. “Everyone can use a neutral party to talk to and help them process information and see a different perspective.”

The wing’s DPH team also encourages members to download the free COVID Coach app, which is currently available in the App Store. This app offers practical ways to cope with stress and stay well.

‘Connect to Protect’ Dream Team

Jolene Richardson and A.J. Byerly are the newest members of the 193rd SOW’s command support team, serving as subject matter experts and frontline ambassadors for mental health wellness, awareness and advocacy.

Richardson, a native of suburban Philadelphia, earned a master’s degree in social work from the University of Southern California. Her graduate program included an emphasis on military support. Richardson’s past experience includes extensive work with active-duty military personal and, more recently, support of Navy and Marine Corps Reserve personnel. Richardson specializes in supporting individuals who struggle with combat issues, grief, loss and trauma.

A.J. Byerly, a native of Camp Hill, Pennsylvania, received a master’s degree in social work from Norfolk State University. Byerly gained much of her experience working in a family advocacy unit at Joint Base Langley-Eustis. She also served as a unit sexual assault response coordinator. Byerly comes to the wing with extensive experience and a specialization in victim advocacy for domestic violence and child abuse.

Both Richardson and Byerly are licensed clinical social workers.