NORFOLK, Va. (WAVY) – USS Gerald R. Ford is the first of its class, boasting two dozen new military technologies on the largest aircraft carrier in history.

A less tangible, but perhaps more vital improvement from older carriers, is a culture shift among the Ford’s crew toward open conversations about mental health.

The effort is plain to see. All around the Ford, purple posters are plastered with “9-8-8,” the suicide and crisis hotline. 

In December 2022, the Navy identified four sailors who took their own lives while stationed at Naval Station Norfolk. In April 2022, three sailors died by suicide while aboard USS George Washington, all dying within a week of each other. 

According to Antonia Chaveria, the Ford’s suicide prevention coordinator, the deaths aboard the GW was “what pushed it over the edge for us.”

“I was scared for this ship,” Chaveria said, “and I wanted to make sure everyone knew what to do in those situations so we could help each other.”

Chaveria works in tandem with the Ford’s senior chaplain, Commander Genevieve Clark. Clark said that every ship in the strike group has a chaplain on board. Chaplains, she said, offer a safe space to talk and seek guidance.

“Most of the time when they’re in a crisis, it’s like being in a tunnel and everything is caving in,” Clark said. “But if we can give them that option to start talking through things, realize they have connectedness, realize they have things that can help them, they often they find they have resources within themselves.”

If those conversations behind closed doors and in safe spaces aren’t enough, Clark and other chaplains might refer a sailor to more intensive resources, such as a visit with the clinical psychologist aboard the ship.

Clark doesn’t think the clusters of suicides represent unprecedented mental health struggles.

“I’ve been in the Navy for 15 years and was in parish ministry for 13 years before that,” Clark said. “This is not new. People struggle with this throughout their lives and some are more inclined to say something,”

But nowadays, she said people are more inclined to act on their feelings of despair. 

Leaders aboard the ship are supposed to be trained in the program safeTALK to recognize the signs of suicidal ideation. Chaveria said that so far, the program is resonating. 

“I wanted to make sure everyone was trained on what to look out for,” Chaveria said. “I wanted to make sure that this ship can also identify suicidal behaviors in themselves.”

According to Clark, the Ford has the highest retention rate in the fleet – currently the Navy’s only publicly-available metric to determine mental-wellbeing of sailors. 

“I’m not saying we’re perfect in any way,” Clark said, “but it’s because we care. Because we’re destigmatizing. We’re seeing that people can come and get the care they need.”

On the flight deck, Tristan Wyms and his teammates spend long hours – day and night – conducting aircraft launch and recovery.

“If you mess up, you’re going to get in trouble,” Wyms said of the pressure, perhaps underselling the life-and-death element to the job. “If I see one of my people being upset, I address it immediately. If you’re not there 100%, our job is so meticulous, it’s almost impossible to be done the right way.”

Wyms said conversations about mental health are facilitated by resources that are ever-present and apparent in gallies and common areas on the ship.

“It’s already addressed constantly in the military,” Wyms said. “We have so many resources in the military, different people to go talk to. I think the biggest problem with mental health is people are afraid to tell people.”

Clark agrees, pointing to the stigma surrounding mental health struggles and fears that a mental health crisis could ruin a career.

“We don’t ruin careers over it, but with suicide you can ruin a life,” Clark said. “Sometimes it’s getting them to reframe an issue. You don’t have to ruin your whole life because a career path didn’t go the way you thought it would.”

Mental health concerns run all the way up the ranks to the Ford’s commanding officer, Capt. Paul Lanzilotta. 

“For my leadership team, we ask that they treat each other with dignity and respect and demonstrate that,” Lanzilotta said. “First and foremost how we treat each other. That’s all the way from the most junior sailor who just checked in, to the senior folks who lead petty officers. A simple greeting goes a long way. And then for the leadership team, how do we stay engaged with our folks?”

Lanzilotta has seen the movement towards conversations about mental health over his three-decade career in the Navy.

“I think we talk about it more,” Lanzilotta said. “I think we’re more open, which is great, because it allows folks to have conversations that they wouldn’t kept to themselves in another era.”

Still, mental health experts on the Ford say there is a long way to go. On Chavaria’s wish list for the ship? Two deployment resiliency counselors, or DRCs.

DRCs are civilians certified in clinical counseling. 

The money is there. Each carrier in the fleet is billeted two DRCs. It’s a matter of finding people credentialed and able to deploy for months at a time.

“We just don’t have enough workers for the jobs right now,” Chavaria said. “I’m not even sure throwing more money at it would be helpful, we just don’t have enough people.”

As the Ford and its strike group near the end of its months-long COMPTUEX certification process at sea, it’ll be set for a worldwide deployment in coming months.