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'We want to change these cultural norms': Peoria man leads new program to prevent harmful behaviors in Illinois National Guard

Sexual violence, workplace violence and harassment, self-directed harm and family violence are all areas of concern within the Illinois National Guard, and a new program led by a Peoria resident hopes to accelerate positive, lasting change and find solutions to these issues.

Matt Palmisano is the new Illinois National Guard integrative prevention officer. The program he is leading is a part of a new nationwide effort that uses a public health approach to combat some of these issues within the National Guard. The initiative was brought about by the secretary of defense and was just authorized in fiscal year 2022 as the integrated primary prevention workforce.

As the leader, Palmisano has extensive experience and knowledge in the field as a retired military officer and as a licensed clinical social worker.

“Coming to this program I had experience in research, I worked at the VA (Veterans Affairs) in Boston…and then I moved to Iowa City, and I worked at the VA there…I worked inpatient psych, in inpatient hospital…and got a lot of great resources there…and I'm doing a research project now. It's paid through the National Guard, but it's dealing with suicide prevention and safer gun risk mitigation,” explained Palmisano.

Palmisano and his team of seven are responsible for developing new strategies and implementing research-informed primary prevention activities. He said primary prevention is all about stopping the harmful behavior before it happens.

“The Guard, you know, it's part of society and violence is a societal issue,” said Palmisano. “It's a public health issue. So, we break it down to interpersonal violence, and self-directed violence. So, the interpersonal violence being child abuse, harassment, sexual assault and domestic abuse, and the self-directed violence is suicide and self-harm.”

Matt Palmisano is the new Illinois National Guard Integrative Prevention Officer, and also a Peoria resident.
Matt Palmisano
Matt Palmisano is the new Illinois National Guard Integrative Prevention Officer, and also a Peoria resident.

He adds that having been a therapist in the military, he has seen first hand the impact of a service member being able to talk openly about experiencing abuse in some way.

“I'm here to really try to help correct those things. I mean, doing the best I can, and that's what my team is kind of focused on,” Palmisano said.

In action, the program and what these solutions look like can take many different forms, according to Palmisano. There’s no “one size fits all” and he adds that flexibility is important when addressing the magnitude of these problems. While Palmisano said larger group training can be effective, he’s noticed a different approach has been quite helpful.

“With suicide prevention, for the last couple of years, we've been doing what's called RTPs, or resiliency tactical pauses, which are more small group discussions…we really talk and try to educate the service members of… it's okay to ask, you know, your buddy are you thinking about hurting yourself? You know, have you ever wished you were dead or wished you could go to sleep and not wake up? You know, these kinds of difficult questions that we try to prepare our service members to be able to ask, and then give them the resources to provide help for that service member in crisis,” Palmisano explained.

In his public health approach, Palmisano outlines three steps similar to the scientific method. First, is identifying the problem followed by identifying risks and protective factors, such as the sex and age of the service member. Protective factors are the characteristics that might reduce the likelihood of a negative outcome or behavior.

“People join the military for all different reasons, right. Sometimes they join to kind of escape an issue at home…one of the things that we discussed is child abuse…the survivors that do well, are the ones that, that kind of get themselves or have that resiliency to get out of that situation. Right. So, you know, we look at those protective factors,” said Palmisano.

After that, the team will work to develop strategies and test those strategies through surveys and data analysis.

“The last step is that we want to really assure widespread adaptation. We want to change these cultural norms,” he said.

The stigma surrounding mental health is real, noted Palmisano. And that stigma extends into the Illinois National Guard.

“In the military people think, oh, if I report something…my career could be over. I know that, you know, people are concerned with medication. And…I can speak to that, you know, the big military wants their service members to be well,” Palmisano said.

If a service member was to report something, unless it involves something illegal or is a threat to someone else’s or their own safety, Palmisano said they are safeguarded, and these issues are not shared under any circumstances.

“Within the military, there's restricted and unrestricted reporting. So…we have victim advocates that are there to support the service member. There's the DoD Safeline right. So, they are dealing with both with referrals and also with crisis management. So…we have the resources to support the service member and hopefully, you know, break through that stigma,” Palmisano said.

Compared to 15 years ago when Palmisano was in the military, he said over time he’s seen the improvement of not only healthier working climates, but more supportive and understanding military leaders. In his new role, Palmisano hopes to continue to accelerate this positive change.

“I want people to know that it'll get better. Give yourself time. Be patient with yourself. And love yourself.”

For more information on Palmisano and the program, visit the Illinois National Guard website.

Jody Holtz is WCBU's assistant program and development director, All Things Considered host, as well as the producer of WCBU’s arts and culture podcast Out and About.