Carmel High School grad earns international award for work to improve soldiers’ mental health 

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Julia DiBenigno’s mission was to improve mental health care delivery with active U.S. Army members.

The 2002 Carmel High School graduate, an assistant professor of organizational behavior at Yale, is the winner of the Journal of Management Studies’ 2017 Grigor McClelland Doctoral Dissertation Award, which she received in Copenhagen, Denmark. The international award aims to promote and recognize innovative Ph.D research.

DiBenigno

DiBenigno graduated from Columbia University and earned her Ph.D from MIT in work and organization studies.

“I was part of this interdisciplinary team at MIT traveling around to different Army installations, interviewing privates all the way up to generals and all the people on the medical side,” said DiBenigno, who was a CHS swimmer and Ambassadors show choir member. “There has been a dramatic increase in mental health issues with military, especially suicide and post traumatic stress disorder.”

DiBenigno’s dissertation focused on mental health providers and commanders.

“One of the things I discovered through my research is that despite all these resources soldiers weren’t actually benefiting from them when they didn’t have the support of their direct commander. These direct commanders can override the treatment recommendations that mental health providers make when they affect the soldier at work. The provider might have said this soldier shouldn’t be around weapons or should sit out the training exercise, and the commander can say, ‘he’s faking it or no, he’s my best gunner, I need him. The mission comes first.’ So there is a lot of conflict.”

DiBenigno said she focused her research on how to win the support of company commanders when the Army is saying it cares about the mental health of the soldiers.

“Commanders saw the providers as these hippies and the providers saw commanders as bullies,” DiBenigno said. “So how do you get these two groups to partner together to benefit the soldier?”

DiBenigno said the organization design of the clinic really matters. She said some clinics assigned providers as points of contact to work with specific units in each brigade. So instead of working with dozens of commanders they would just work with six to 12.

“They started developing personal relationships and commanders began to be see these providers as not just putting a drain on the force but also being helpful in getting ahead of issue,” she said.

Another structure involved embedding providers into the system. In those situations, sometimes providers would form tight relationships with commanders and would end up being swayed by them.

DiBenigno developed a concept called anchored personalization.

“You want to have personalized connection across different groups, but you also need anchoring in your home group identity, your need to stay true to what their group is all about,” DiBenigno said. “In this case, (mental health providers) worked in a clinic surrounded by (co-workers) who would say it looks like you are getting a little caught up in what Capt. Smith wants to do. So you can keep yourself committed to the soldier’s mental health goals and not just what the commanders’ goals were.”

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