JBLM uses holistic approach to help soldiers

Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash. — Joint Base Lewis-McChord is revolutionizing the Army’s approach to mental and physical health.

Sgt. Alex Nichalson, an infantryman at JBLM, transformed his life through the Army’s Holistic Health and Fitness program. With a combination of therapy and weightlifting, Nichalson strengthened his physical and mental health when he reached a breaking point in 2019.

“That was a key moment for me, of being like I want to live for something, and that’s why I dove into powerlifting. It consumed me,” Nichalson said.

In fall 2019, Nichalson knew he needed help when he could no longer mask his anxiety or depression. He had turned to alcohol and smoking to ease the pain and realized it was only making everything seem worse.

“From losing friends, suicide, downrange, things (that) happened in my childhood, to losing a child during my first deployment, everything kept adding up and adding up,” Nichalson said.

In 2019, Nichalson met Capt. Amanda Hetzler, an occupational therapist at JBLM. He believes she saved his life.

“She made me feel like a person, and she constantly always reassured me, that everything was going to be alright, and it was the first time in my life that I had that,” Nichalson said.

It was a turning point in Nichalson’s lif. He now had the tools and support to focus on his mental health — something he chose not to confront for most of his life.

“Alex talked about putting on that tough face and just putting on a show trying to be strong,” Hetzler said. “When you do that for so long, you stop living, you stop growing, you suffer in silence.”

The Army launched its Holistic Health and Fitness pilot program at 10 locations, including JBLM, in 2018. The program changed the culture about how the Army approaches mental health issues.

“(It’s about) taking care of yourself spiritually, mentally, socially, emotionally, just doing those things tending to all those areas, instead of just putting on a happy face to look like you are OK. Addressing what’s going on from the inside out,” Hetzler said.

The need for this approach was to ensure readiness. Each year, nearly 20% leave the military because of a preventable mental or physical injury, which equals a loss of $1 billion annually. The program is a cultural shift in how they train and treat soldiers, and how soldiers view themselves.

“Growing up in the Army, especially eight years ago when I came in, behavioral health was frowned upon. Nobody took it really seriously. Like we knew we had this suicide pandemic going on, but everyone who was in you would be seen as weak if you went to see help,” Nichalson said.

After overcoming his own hesitancy to seek help, Nichalson’s goal is to normalize mental health treatment and help others understand it’s equally as important as their physical wellness.

“I love helping people, so just asking people, ‘Hey man, how you feeling today? And just talking to people, utilizing the skills I’ve learned and teaching them that,” Nichalson said.

In response to the success of the pilot program, military installations across the country are now preparing to add this as well.