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Clinical Social Worker Provides Mental-Health Support on Remote Base

Image of Military personnel posing for a picture. Licensed clinical social worker, Navy Lt. Carlos Lopez, in the Branch Health Clinic aboard Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake in Ridgrecrest, California. Lopez is on three-month temporary duty, providing mental health support for Weapons Station personnel and their families (Photo by: Dave Marks, Naval Hospital Twentynine Palms, MCAGCC Twentynine Palms, California).

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Mental health resources are in short supply in the midst of a pandemic that has isolated families, increased unemployment and significantly reduced social and outside activities that usually alleviate stress.

When the Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake in Ridgecrest, California, announced the arrival of a clinical social worker for a three-month working visit, the news rippled through the community like a harbinger of hope.

Navy Lt. Carlos Lopez arrived at the Branch Health Clinic, located aboard the Weapons Station, on June 1 for a three-month assignment. Lopez, assigned to Naval Hospital Twentynine Palms (the Branch Health Clinic's parent command), is on loan due to the heightened need.

"We've had a significant amount of trauma here," said Navy Capt. Jeremy Vaughan, commanding officer, NAWS China Lake. We've had the two earthquakes in 2019, and since July of 2020, we've had approximately 2,500 aftershocks of magnitude 2.5 or larger," he said. "Additionally, we test weapons here, with frequent explosions over the weekend. All of those things shake the population. Add that to the isolation of COVID-19 throughout the last 18 months and you've got a recipe for a large amount of counseling need here."

Lopez arrived at Naval Hospital Twentynine Palms in mid-March, 2021 from a three-year stint in Japan, and has experience serving isolated populations. "A lot of what I saw over there were things like anxiety, insomnia, sleep-related issues, depression and isolation from being so far from loved ones," Lopez stated.

Lopez has served in the Navy for eight years, and earned his Master's degree in social work from California State University, Stanislaus.

"I wanted to serve my country in some way, shape or form," he said. "I'm from a family that is all Army and all enlisted, so becoming a naval officer was a change of course."

Lopez wants the community to understand the basic skills for resilience.

Adults should be getting six to nine hours of quality sleep per night, he explained. "If you're having trouble with that, I can provide tips that will help," he said. "Community" is the operative word, he noted. "It's all about having people you can talk to or go to when you're having a hard time, whether it's squadron, a faith-based group, neighbors or family."

Lopez also noted that people with severe and significant stressors that are unmanageable should make an appointment either with himself, or their chaplain to find strategies for moving forward.

Lopez wants prospective patients to know he relies on an evidence-based eight-twelve appointment regimen. "That number of appointments can be very helpful and provides traction," he said. "I'm going to have to find and identify goals for some quick progression as my time here is temporary. Part of the reason for my being here is to determine if there's an on-going need to establish a permanent position, he said"

"We're finding that families are craving and needing that one-on-one connection that you get with an in-person counseling session," said Hannah Moore, NAWS China Lake, public affairs officer. We have Lt. Lopez here for three months and we can say, listen, if you need help, there's somebody here for you now, she explained.

"It's total health well-being," added Moore. "We've got the pool open again, so families can swim. Now we have a mental-health professional here. We're really trying to take care of the whole person here at China Lake."

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