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UTANG Director of Psychological Health lends levity, approachability to resiliency resource role

Annika Hunt, Utah Air National Guard Director of Psychological Health, reviews client notes in her office on the second floor of the Headquarters Building. Hunt’s primary role is to serve as a professional emotional wellness resource for Airmen of every rank and job specialty on base. (Air National Guard photo by Capt. Jennifer Eaton/RELEASED)

Annika Hunt, Utah Air National Guard Director of Psychological Health, reviews client notes in her office on the second floor of the Headquarters Building. Hunt’s primary role is to serve as a professional emotional wellness resource for Airmen of every rank and job specialty on base. (Air National Guard photo by Capt. Jennifer Eaton/RELEASED)

SALT LAKE CITY -- Each year as the holiday season concludes, the subsequent physical and emotional exhaustion many people experience in its wake is further exacerbated by the transition to some of winter's darkest, dreariest days.

It's not surprising that this combination of factors can affect Airmen personally and professionally, and while emotional wellness is an Air Force priority year round, January is an especially important month to remember that resources are available when resiliency reserves are low.

Though her name may be unfamiliar to some, Annika Hunt, Director of Psychological Health for the Utah Air National Guard, should be considered one of the most valuable assets available to assist with any Air Guardsman's emotional wellness barometer check.  

A member of the team since 2011, Hunt is the first DPH to hold the position within the Utah Air National Guard, and she is responsible for all of the units on base, including tenants. She credits great leadership support at all levels for her ability to establish and oversee a program that serves Airmen by promoting a culture of psychological wellness.

"My first order of business in this role was to take the time to talk to leaders across the base in order to understand each unit and its unique mission," said Hunt. "That was critical because it's the commander's job to create a positive culture of health, morale, and wellness, and it's my job to support them."

Hunt recognizes that her somewhat intimidating title and the stereotypes surrounding professionals in the field of psychology have the potential to make Airmen feel uneasy about initiating a conversation. With a warm smile and healthy dose of levity, she takes a proactive approach to ensuring that skepticism doesn't impede anyone's decision to visit her office.

"I like to use my sense of humor to lighten the mood and put people at ease," she said. "Walking through my door and the conversation that follows is a completely voluntary decision, so it's extremely important to me that people are comfortable enough to take that first step."

She also notes that there's no primary or preferred way to touch base.

"Call me, or send an email or text; instant message me; set up an appointment; flag me down in my car; or just stop by," she said. "The most important thing is just to get here."

In fact, at least half of Hunt's visits from Airmen are impromptu meetings where someone drops by casually to ask if she has a minute to chat.

Whether through an appointment, or simply in passing, it's what happens next -- after an Airman initiates dialogue -- that Hunt believes requires better clarification in order to dispel some of the myths and mystery surrounding her position.

Hunt says the role of the DPH is to engage in conversation, gather information, provide resources and options, and make recommendations -- not to conduct psychotherapy -- a distinction she considers crucial.

"Everything I do is designed to promote the readiness of the individual Airman and to help keep our professional military men and women emotionally healthy so they can remain engaged in the fight," she said.

Col. Christine Burckle, Director of Staff, emphasized that Hunt's multifaceted approach has had a significant impact on many military members.

"Annika also has a way of dropping by to 'check in' on myself and other senior leaders to see how we're doing," said Burckle. "She has an uncanny ability to appear during times when that smiling face and casual inquiry are much needed." 

The process when any Airman, regardless of rank or position, decides to reach out for assistance is simple and straightforward.

Hunt begins by discerning whether the discussion is related to circumstances surrounding the individual or someone else. If it's the former, she immediately reviews the scope of confidentiality covering any dialogue in order to ensure the Airman is educated about the client-advisor relationship.

Airmen might be surprised to learn there are actually very few scenarios Hunt is mandated to report. Examples include an Airman's disclosure of intent to harm themselves or others; suspicion of child or elder abuse; or when she is compelled to comply with court order requirements.

The next step in the process is to provide a comfortable, safe atmosphere for Airmen to discuss the events, concerns, relationships, or questions weighing on their minds. Hunt then takes the information gathered from one or many conversations and provides a comprehensive professional recommendation.

Her advice can run the spectrum from suggesting topic-specific literature or self-study, to identifying various support groups, to providing contact information for immediate medical resources, if necessary.

"It's incredibly important to me that people who've trusted me with their time and conversation leave my office with a personalized plan for moving forward," said Hunt.

Interestingly, she notes that the "plan" is often as simple as providing confirmation that whatever the individual is feeling in a given situation is actually perfectly valid and completely normal because adversity is a part of life.

Ultimately, all of Hunt's education, training and expertise culminate in a desire to help Airmen take the best possible care of themselves and one another.

"Annika is a valuable resource for Airmen of all ranks and can be counted on to provide anything from a small confidence boost to full support for a serious mental health situation," said Burckle, who emphasized that the stigma once attached to seeking help continues to be refuted in favor of Comprehensive Airman Fitness.

Hunt echoes the culture change sentiment wholeheartedly, noting that she considers it an "absolute honor to play a role in fostering the individual and team resiliency that make our Air Force the greatest in the world."