Sometimes an unexpected opportunity can change the course of your entire life. For Lauren Johnson, that happened when she started working as a research associate at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in 2014, studying the effects of traumatic brain injury on military service members and veterans.
“Everything clicked for me there. All of my training and education came together and made me see what I wanted to do with the rest of my life,” the 30-year-old from Philadelphia tells Healthline.
She’s since made it her mission to offer mental health services to military members and veterans, and develop research to curb suicide in that community. She’s already presented reports on suicide in the military at four national conferences, played an active role in the Veterans Yoga Project, and served on a panel discussion about women of color in psychology.
Johnson is also a reserve officer in the Medical Service Corps. Once she completes her doctorate at Drexel University, she’ll begin an internship as a military psychologist.
We asked Johnson about her studies, goals, and obstacles. Here’s what she had to say.
This interview has been edited for brevity, length, and clarity.
My time at Walter Reed made it exceedingly clear what I was passionate about. It made me realize I wanted to pursue a career as a military psychologist and make a significant impact on military mental health. All of my training and education came together and made me see what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.
That ties into my other interest in suicide. It’s the 10th-leading cause of death in the general population, but within the military, it’s the second-leading cause of death. That was shocking for me to learn. Awareness has grown a lot in the past few years about the challenges of suicide in the military, and people are just starting to realize the magnitude of the issue.
As someone who’s interested in improving military mental health, I realized just how important it is to create solutions and offer prevention and intervention strategies. I wanted to be part of that charge.
I’m a reserve officer in the Medical Service Corps. I’m focused on completing my doctoral studies, but once I’m done, I’m looking forward to serving as a military psychologist.
Next summer, I’ll start my internship. While I want to work with patients who have a wide range of issues, I have a special interest in caring for those who have a heightened risk of suicide. I’m eager to make sure that those people have support to continue their military career or go back into the civilian world.
I hope to also continue engaging in research that helps significantly reduce suicides among military personnel. I’m interested in being involved in the development of suicide risk assessment tools. It’s one critical step toward identifying those who might need help and developing or enhancing evidence-based treatment interventions to help people adequately resolve their suicidal thoughts and behaviors.
The last piece of my goal is making sure I can take a public health approach to suicide in whatever role I find myself in. I’d be excited to help create policies and implement wider-scale programs that help increase awareness, reduce barriers, and increase access to resources. That can have a positive effect on enhancing mental health and hopefully reducing suicide rates.
Choosing to commission as an officer in the Medical Service Corps was one of the best decisions of my life. However, it comes with its own unique challenges that may not have existed if I pursued a path to treat military service members or veterans as a civilian provider.
There’s a lot of uncertainty with taking on military service. I don’t know where I’ll be a year from now when my internship begins. I don’t know where I’ll be stationed for my first tour of duty. Residential moves and deployments are part of the commitment of military service, and it comes with the challenge of instability.
I am taking it in stride, and I believe that even uncertainty can provide a really valuable lesson. I wholeheartedly believe in the difference I can make and the meaning I can provide in my position as a military psychologist. The growth I achieve both personally and professionally will be mentally valuable.
There are millions and millions of people in the states and around the world who have a connection to military service members and veterans, whether it’s a friend, family member, someone they know at work. And we’re finally starting to pay attention to the issue of suicide, which is so devastating within that population.
We’re starting to dedicate more resources, decrease stigma, and do more research within those populations. We have a ways to go as far as taking care of those who dedicate their lives to defending us and providing security, but there’s been a lot of progress. There’s a beautiful thing happening where people are starting to feel like military members are just like them, that we all have a similar experience, and this is something we share as humans.
One exciting thing I did this past semester was serve as the graduate teaching assistant in a class called Publishing Veterans’ Memoirs. It connected Drexel University undergrad students with veterans. They crafted narratives about their military service and uploaded it to the Library of Congress. Students came in with a lot of preconceived notions about military service, but by the end of the course, they found a lot of similarities with their own lives. That’s a really important place to go in the future.
Service members have an amazing community, and that’s something to love and care about. But as we go forward into the future, we need less separation. Military issues are society issues.
Joni Sweet is a freelance writer who specializes in travel, health, and wellness. Her work has been published by National Geographic, Forbes, the Christian Science Monitor, Lonely Planet, Prevention, HealthyWay, Thrillist, and more. Keep up with her on Instagram and check out her portfolio.