Chaplain (Maj.) Michael Dawson understands the unique challenge living a life as a Solider can bring during the holidays or any other time of year. For one, he is a soldier. For another, he lends an ear to the many other Soldiers who come to him at U.S. Army Garrison Rheinland-Pfalz in Germany.
Chaplains are also a unique part of a Soldier’s mental health options and a vital player in the garrison’s first Line of Effort: People, putting People First.
“I am a family life chaplain,” Maj. Michael Dawson, garrison family life chaplain. “I understand the DSM, I don’t diagnose anyone, but I understand those aspects. I am also a pastor, so I integrate the two. To understand someone’s story whether they are religious or not is what we do, that is our calling.”
The DSM is the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders that defines and classifies mental disorders in order to improve diagnoses, treatment, and research. When getting into the holiday season, Dawson said that he sees people who sometimes suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder.
According to the National Institute of Health, SAD is a type of depression that typically reoccurs during seasonal pattern changes and includes symptoms like oversleeping, social withdraw, feeling depressed and losing interest in activities.
“We need to normalize SAD, there is a medical side to it like you need vitamin D, but there is also a psychological aspect to it,” said Dawson. “I don’t like it when I come to work and it is dark and leave when it is dark.”
They also see people who are struggling with suicidal ideations. According to the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, suicide rates increased 33% between 1999 and 2019, with a small decline in 2019. Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States. It was responsible for more than 47,500 deaths in 2019, which is about one death every 11 minutes
“We see people who are suicidal and if they want help, we help them find the resources they need,” said Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Randall Curry, garrison chief of chaplains. “Most of the time someone who is suicidal who is seeking help wants help, they may just not know how to get it and we help them with that.”
Curry and Dawson noted that seeking help from a chaplain guarantees confidentiality.
“Chaplains have 100% confidentiality, so your story is safe with us,” said Dawson. “This opens the door for someone to get down to what is really bothering them because they know it isn’t going anywhere and they can really work through what that issue really is.”
The Chaplains have master degrees in seminary, and most curriculum includes course work on pastoral counseling. For family life counselors like Dawson, they have to complete a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy and go through additional training with the Army.
“We see couples for marriage counseling, sometimes someone just wants faith-based counseling,” said Dawson. “I have also seen children. That type of counseling is different, we may do play-based counseling.”
There is not a limit on how many times you can receive counseling from a chaplain, explained Dawson.
“In cases of infidelity, I have seen couples 30 or 40 times to help deal whatever it is they are going through,” continued Dawson.
For Dawson, this profession is something he is passionate about. And for the holiday season, it’s something they all genuinely focus their efforts to ensure people can be their happiest and fullest.
“I do love my job, I have the best job in the Army just as a chaplain,” said Dawson. “In a church setting we are often separated from our congregation. Here we do everything with our congregation it is very different from church ministry and I love it.”
Soldiers, Airmen, and their family members can receive counseling from the garrison chaplains, battalion chaplains or from one of many interconnected touchpoints across the garrison.
“The one thing about Army Chaplains is we don’t just help Soldiers and their families, we can help the Air Force and their families as well,” said Dawson. “You can find a link to an email on the garrison webpage that will reach our office here and we often get ‘hey, I want to meet someone for marriage counseling.’”