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Recognizing the Signs of Invisible Wounds and Promoting a Culture of Support

  • Published
  • By Courtesy article
  • IWI Program

As a leader, Senior Master Sgt. Phillip Sharpe always sought to create a culture of support, and encouraged his Airmen to take care of their mental health. He never imagined he would need his own advice.

Sharpe first noticed his symptoms in 2017. He would wake up in the middle of the night with his heart pounding through his chest. With increased anxiety also came feelings of emptiness. “I felt broken inside, but didn’t know what was wrong,” says Sharpe. “When I laughed, I didn’t feel the joy. The only emotion I felt was anger.”

He called the Mental Health Clinic as soon as he recognized his symptoms. Then one morning, the day before his scheduled appointment, he started to cry. “This is good,” he thought. “I’m feeling something other than anger.” But the tears didn’t stop. He was having a panic attack as memories of three past events kept flashing through his mind, like a kaleidoscope.

Years of working at a high-ops tempo and stress of deployments on his family had revived suppressed emotions behind the three traumatic events in his life. In 2002, he felt helpless having to provide comfort care to a dying patient on Do-Not-Resuscitate orders with the patient’s family in the room. In 2006, the weight of responsibility for being the Emergency Room shift leader overwhelmed him as an infant’s heart stopped in the ER filled with dozens of patients. In 2007, Sharpe felt like a failure as a father, when his daughter suffered a seizure in his arms and he couldn’t remember his home address while on the phone with 911.  

The clinic referred Sharpe to a psychiatrist, who diagnosed him with acute adjustment disorder and anxiety. “Therapy is brutal initially,” says Sharpe as he began Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and medication therapy. “You have to relive those moments and emotions.” He said the hardest part was learning to forgive himself for “feeling like a hypocrite” and for taking years to recognize his own symptoms when he had always emphasized mental well-being to others.

Sharpe has now completed treatment and runs through regular mental check-lists to prioritize his mental health. He has become an advocate for normalizing invisible wounds, including by sharing his story during stand-down days and discussing the importance of mental health during quarterly commander’s calls.

“None of us are truly strong enough to do everything we do on an island,” says Sharpe. “As leaders, we have to be willing to have conversations. We have to encourage a culture of support for wingmen so they feel comfortable reaching out for help. If our folks are not okay, then how can they execute the mission?”

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Editor Note: Invisible wounds are as real and severe as physical wounds. If left untreated invisible wounds can have negative impacts on an Airman’s personal and professional life. It’s important for Airmen to recognize signs and symptoms of invisible wounds in themselves and in their peers, to ensure a mentally strong, resilient, and lethal Total Force. The Air Force is committed to supporting Airmen living with invisible wounds by providing a wide range of resources to support their recovery journey. To share your own stories of invisible wounds and/or learn about available resources visit www.ReadyAirmen.com.