UI research promotes early intervention for service members’ mental health

UI education Assistant Professor Kayla Reed-Fitzke applies research on adverse childhood experiences to provide early career service members at risk for mental-health issues with early help and support.


Michael Guhin

Professor Kayla Fitzke stands outside the Lindquist Center for a portrait on Tuesday, Jun 25, 2019. (Michael Guhin/The Daily Iowan)

Rylee Wilson, News Reporter

For many members of the military, confronting mental health can be difficult. But researchers with a new study hope to connect service members with help before crises arise.

Kayla Reed-Fitzke, a University of Iowa assistant professor of education, is helping to identify members of the military who would benefit from early prevention or intervention to prevent mental illnesses.

Using data on adverse childhood experiences, Reed-Fitzke can identify service members who may be at risk for mental-health issues later in their careers.

“A lot of times people tend to wait until the breaking point to go seek mental health treatment,” she said. “We hope that we can intervene for those who experience mental-health issues like anxiety, depression, and PTSD — versus waiting until it gets to that breaking point — as well as [help] those who haven’t had those symptoms quite yet, but we identify them as being at risk.”

Growing up in a military family motivated her to pursue military psychology, Reed-Ftizke said.

“I think that it’s important that when our service members protect us abroad, we protect them at home,” she said.

Around 55 percent of people have experienced at least one adverse childhood experience by the time they reach adulthood. Adverse childhood experiences are various forms of trauma during childhood, including physical and emotional abuse and exposure to mental illness or substance abuse.

Previous research identified individuals with four or more adverse childhood experiences at a higher risk for mental and physical health conditions.

UI education Assistant Professor Armeda Wojciak said adverse childhood experiences can affect the way the brain functions.

“What we know about [adverse childhood experiences] and we know about trauma — it not only impacts you on your body level,” she said. “Which is why we see the negative health outcomes. But we know that trauma and toxic stress, which can be associated if you’re living in conditions in which you’re experiencing these long term, also impact the brain architecture and the way in which it works.”

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While adverse childhood experiences can increase risk for mental- and physical-health problems, Wojciak said, building support systems can help increase resiliency when service members experience stressful situations.

“There are areas for intervention and to get the support there, because there’s a lot of that resilience that people can have and how we can build in some support or relations so that they don’t have these negative health outcomes,” she said. “It’s about mitigating the effects that these could have if they go unattended.”

Reed-Fitzke received a grant from the American Psychological Association Society for Military Psychology to pursue the research. She worked with James Duncan, an instructor at the University of Arkansas, on the study.

Duncan, an Air Force veteran, said the research is different from previous approaches because it focuses on assessing risk rather than determining symptoms.

“Our novelty is that if we can identify adverse experiences in individuals before they’re in the military as opposed to after they’ve experienced something, we can, hopefully, provide them more resources earlier on in their careers than they would normally get right now,” he said.

Reed-Fitzke and Duncan hope to communicate the results of their study to community military organizations and veterans’ organizations.

“The ultimate goal is really to find information but get it out to people in a timely manner so they can start to use it and, hopefully, promote outcomes sooner rather than later for well-being for these service members,” Duncan said.