Leader Aide Memoire

Alternate Formats

Directorate of Mental Health

Table of Contents

References used in the development of this aide memoire:

  1. Sweeney, M. (2009). Brain: The complete mind. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society.
  2. United States. Army Center for Lessons Learned. (2007). CALL leader’s handbook no. 07-27: The first 100 days. Fort Leavenworth, KS.
  3. NATO Research and Technology Organisation (2008). A leader’s guide to psychological support across the deployment cycle (RTO-HFM-081).


Purpose of the Guide

Leaders at all levels have a key role in sustaining the mental readiness of service personnel under their command. The aim of this guide is to provide military leaders with information and practical strategies for dealing with stress and the provision of psychological support. The goal is to enhance personal and unit effectiveness in modern military operations, whether in garrison or on deployment.

It is important for CF personnel and leaders to understand that the effects of deployment and operational stress are experienced by all military personnel. Recognizing and managing the effects of operational stress is equally important during routine training missions as it is during combat operations. Leaders must create conditions where their personnel can talk about and make sense of their experiences.

Leaders should remember that the more troops know about normal reactions to stress, the more resilient they will be at dealing with the stress of military operations. Leaders should not underestimate their influence on the morale and well-being of personnel in their command.

A commander’s skill as a leader and his/her ability to provide support is critical and is often all that is needed to assist members through the normal recovery after stressful incidents. In fact, evidence has shown that while most persons may experience some physical or emotional symptoms after an exposure to a potentially traumatizing event, the great majority of these persons will recover. It is therefore imperative that CF personnel at all levels refrain from assuming that the normal human response to potentially traumatizing events will result in a requirement for medical attention.


"Mental Toughness is the ability to bring to life whatever skills and talents you have - on demand. That may come down to an ability to fight sleepiness, or to stay relaxed and calm or to not surrender your spirit when the odds are against you." James Loehr in Brain: The Complete Mind, National Geographic, 2009

Adverse situations: the duties performed on operations can expose military personnel to stressful and traumatic events. The stressors are likely to vary by operation, mission, and occupation.

Military Resilience is defined in the Army Terminology Repertoire, as “the capacity of a soldier to recover quickly, resist, and possibly even thrive in the face of direct/indirect traumatic events and adverse situations in garrison, training and operational environments.

Stress and Performance

Physiology & the Brain

The stress response system (Fight/Flight/Freeze) is automatic; it is not under our direct control. It is a reflex programmed by evolution that kicks in when we are challenged. The Fight/Flight/Freeze reaction causes a number of unpleasant feelings, such as: tense muscles, breathing difficulties, aching muscles, tight chest, trembling.

However, even though we don’t control it directly, understanding how Fight/Flight/Freeze works can give us some indirect influence over stress, and prevent its effects of becoming harmful or chronic.

It is possible for a person to intervene and regain control over this response to stress by starting to slow down the process. This is achieved by relaxing the body, slowing the breathing and increasing the amount of oxygen to the brain. The ability to relax does not come easily - it is a skill that has to be learned and practiced.

The physical effects of applying arousal reduction techniques include:

  • Immediate changes - lowering of BP, HR, breath rate, and oxygen consumption
  • Long term changes (after repeated practice) - decrease in anxiety and depression, as well as an improvement in ability to cope with life stressors

Mental Health Continuum Model (MHCM)

Healthy (green)

Normal functioning

Reacting (yellow)

Common and reversible distress

Injured (orange)

Severe and persistent functional impairment

Ill (red)

Clinical disorder; Severe functional impairment

Recent experiences have taught us that many CF members have physical and mental health concerns that, if identified and treated early, have the potential to be temporary and reversible. This model recognizes the spectrum of health concerns, be they mental or physical, which may impact CF members during their careers. This model goes from healthy adaptive coping (green), through mild and reversible distress or functional impairment (yellow), to more severe, persistent injury or impairment (orange), to clinical illnesses and disorders requiring more concentrated medical care (red). The arrows under the four color blocks denote the fact that this is a continuum, with movement in both directions along the continuum, indicating that there is always the possibility for a return to full health and functioning.

Signs and Symptoms

Healthy (green)

  • Normal mood fluctuations; Calm & takes things in stride
  • Good sense of humour; Performing well; In control mentally
  • Normal sleep patterns; Few sleep difficulties
  • Physically well; Good energy level
  • Physically and socially active
  • No/limited alcohol use/ gambling

Reacting (yellow)

  • Irritable/ Impatient; Nervous; Sadness/ Overwhelmed
  • Displaced sarcasm; Procrastination; Forgetfulness
  • Trouble sleeping; Intrusive thoughts; Nightmares
  • Muscle tension/ Headaches; Low energy
  • Decreased activity/ socializing
  • Regular but controlled alcohol use/ gambling

Injured (Orange)

  • Anger; Anxiety; Pervasively sad/ Hopeless
  • Negative attitude; Poor performance or Workaholic; Poor concentration/ decisions
  • Restless disturbed sleep; Recurrent images/ nightmares
  • Increased aches and pains; Increased fatigue
  • Avoidance; Withdrawal
  • Increased alcohol use/ gambling - hard to control

Ill (red)

  • Angry outbursts/ aggression; Excessive anxiety/panic attacks; Depressed/ Suicidal thoughts
  • Overt insubordination; Can’t perform duties, control behaviour or concentrate
  • Can’t fall asleep or stay asleep; Sleeping too much or too little
  • Physical illnesses; Constant fatigue
  • Not going out or answering phone
  • Alcohol or gambling addiction; Other addictions

Mitigating the Impact of Stress

What to Do

We employ countermeasures to counteract a danger or threat. Stress countermeasures are designed to apply the brakes to our central nervous system and manage the impact of stress on the body and mind.

The Big Four

Goal setting

Goals provide direction, feedback, and motivation. A goal should be out of reach, but not out of sight. Break goals into smaller chunks, take action, evaluate progress.

Mental rehearsal / visualization

Mental rehearsal involves mentally preparing yourself for the what ifs. This is not about being negative and becoming overwhelmed, rather it is predicting possible problems and working out a solution in advance.

Self talk

It is not an event that leads to our emotions and behaviour but rather our thoughts about this event. The key to selftalk is to make the messages positive rather than negative.

  • Become aware of self talk
  • Stop the negative; replace with positive
  • Use key words: Ready. Focus. Persist. Overcome. Confident.

Arousal reduction: tactical breathing

The Rule of 4’s

  • Inhale to count of 4
  • Exhale to count of 4

Repeat for 4 minutes

Ad Hoc incident review (AIR)

  1. Step 1: Acknowledge and Listen
  2. Step 2: Inform - Check in and apply MHCM
  3. Step 3: Respond - Observe, follow up, model

The Ad hoc Incident Review (AIR) is simply a tool you can use to structure your supportive intervention with the group and reduce distress. The process can be implemented either formally or informally, as a small unit or sub-group, or within the more informal buddy system.

Step 1: Acknowledge and Listen

Acknowledge: The leadership has a responsibility to acknowledge the event: “Something bad just happened.” “That was a tough one.” It is okay to make a global statement about how the group is feeling. Do not ignore the event, or carry on without acknowledging the event. However do not over-emphasize the event either. Talk about facts only. What you could do: approach it the same way you would send a message over the radio: calm, straight forward and clear.

Listen: Your job is not to fix it (you can’t). However, you can help by providing an opportunity for discussion. Expect that some members will not want to talk about the event, or other may only wish to discuss it with their peers not with you. This is okay. Each person will cope with an event in their own way, and we do not want to interfere with people’s natural coping strategies. What you shouldn’t do is force some one to talk to you; this can be detrimental. All discussions should occur voluntarily and naturally.

Step 2: Inform - Check in and apply the model

  • Most individuals (80%) will have some short-term reaction to operational stress or difficult events. The best interventions are the simplest, non-medical ones that can be implemented by the chain of command within unit lines.
  • After acknowledging the event and providing the opportunity to talk, you should remind the troops that it is important for them to take care of themselves. For some they may not be bothered at all but for others some symptoms of distress may continue over the next few days or even weeks. Reinforce that there are resources available if needed and that you will help access them.
  • It is often difficult to end this type of conversation so here are some options that you may want to consider:
    • Refocus on the mission and what needs to be done.
    • Make a commitment to give the troops an opportunity to regroup when there is time.
    • Make a commitment to touch base with them over the coming weeks to see how they are doing.

Step 3: Respond - Observe, follow up, model

  • Observe, follow-up with members later on to see how they are doing, and model healthy coping. A note on modeling: People want to hear leader’s negative emotions or thoughts after a distressing event. They don’t need you to pretend that everything is okay.
  • Adverse events not only provide leaders with a challenge, but also provide them with an opportunity. Effective leaders actively demonstrate concern for individuals, acknowledge loss, communicate directly with unit members and their families, and send a message that the unit is expected to recover. Through good leadership, they can strengthen cohesion, resilience, and readiness.


Role of individuals

Most soldiers say that they made it through the deployment because of their buddies. Providing basic peer support is crucial to keeping each other healthy during a deployment. Peer support does not need to be complicated and it is not therapy. Sometimes the simplest interventions are the best.

"Remember that in any man’s dark hour, a pat on the back and an earnest handclasp may work a small miracle." -- Brigadier-General S.L.A Marshall, 1950

Role of leaders

  • Leaders must establish a command climate which acknowledges that personnel may become overwhelmed with the personal issues they struggle with. The only way the troops will be open to receiving help is if the environment in which they work endorses that getting help is OK.
  • Leaders have to be willing to talk to their personnel, and listen to what they have to say. They have to send the message that they are interested in hearing what is going on with their troops.
  • It is important to emphasize that seeking help in times of distress displays courage, strength, responsibility, and good judgement.

Recognition & Support:

  • Know the members of your team, help them learn the skills they need
  • Be on the lookout for sudden changes in behaviour and performance; if you see such changes, ask about them
  • Ask team members how they are handling the deployment, and how things are going back home
  • Offer encouragement and recognition
  • If you are concerned about someone, talk to them about how they are doing

Key Role of Leaders

  • Lead by example
  • Get to know your personnel
  • Foster healthy climate
  • Identify and resolve problems early
  • Deal with performance issues promptly
  • Demonstrate genuine concern
  • Provide opportunities for rest
  • Provide mental health first aid after adverse situations
  • Provide realistic training opportunities
  • Lead to BE the Resilience Reservoir
  • Watch for behaviour changes
  • Adjust workload as required
  • Know the resources & how to access them
  • Reduce barriers to help-seeking
  • Encourage early access to care
  • Consult with Chain of Command / Health Services as required
  • Involve Mental Health resources
  • Demonstrate genuine concern
  • Respect confidentiality
  • Minimize rumours
  • Respect medical employment limitations
  • Appropriately employ personnel
  • Maintain respectful contact
  • Involve members in social support
  • Seek consultation as needed
  • Manage unacceptable behaviours


  • Get to know troops
  • Foster healthy work environment
  • Set example of healthy coping behaviours
  • Watch for significant behaviour/performance changes
  • Manage unacceptable behaviour
  • Provide opportunity to rest
  • Identify and manage unhealthy situations
  • Support, Intervene, Consult


  • Diagnose or label
  • Ignore the situation and hope it will go away
  • Allow the member to isolate him/herself
  • Lose touch with members receiving medical care
  • Try to be their best friend

Role of mental health professionals

  • Mental health professionals assess the well-being and morale of CF personnel, and offer early intervention, when required.
  • Leaders can consult with Mental Health professionals to help them address unit issues and to generate recommendations for actions to improve well-being and morale. Leaders can also request specific training on issues that affect their whole unit, such as how families are affected by deployment, stress management, and conflict resolution.

Suicide Prevention

Suicide is a complex issue. Most individuals have more than one reason for attempting it. Most people who attempt suicide do not want to die. Rather, it is a desperate act aimed at stopping the pain of living. Evidence clearly shows that if a person is prevented from committing suicide, he or she is very thankful afterwards.

It would seem that many suicides could be prevented since most are preceded by warning signs. All CF members should be familiar with these signs and know what to do to help prevent this needless loss of a life. Suicide prevention is everybody’s business.

Sudden changes in behaviour in an individual may indicate underlying emotional problems. These could include an abrupt increase in absenteeism, reduced job performance, lack of interest and withdrawal, changed relationships with fellow workers, increased irritability or aggressiveness, and increased or heavy use of alcohol or drugs.

Sudden changes in attitude or personality may also be a telltale sign of problems. This could show up as a sudden loss of interest in appearance or hygiene. Or it could lead a cautious individual to become a reckless risk-taker. These and other similar changes are cause for concern.

Making final arrangements is another common act of someone thinking about suicide. In younger people, this might include giving away prized personal possessions. In older individuals, it might involve updating a will, attention to personal financial planning, and the like.

Some warning signs are more direct. Eight out of ten people who take their own life give definite clues before doing so. Suicide hints or threats must therefore be taken seriously. These could be statements such as: “I won’t be around much longer for you to put up with me”; “My family would be better off without me,” or “I think I’m going to end it all. I can’t stand this anymore.

If you think someone is seriously contemplating suicide, there are some things you can do. Five very specific steps are noted below. These have appeared previously in CF publications, but they are extremely important and bear repeating. You should:

  • ASK the individual directly if they are thinking of suicide.
  • LISTEN to what they have to say without judging.
  • BELIEVE what the individual says and take all threats of suicide seriously.
  • REASSURE the person that help is available.
  • ACT immediately. Make contact with others to ensure the person’s safety

Don’t try to deal with the situation yourself. Medical staff, a Social Work Officer, a Chaplain, and the individual’s Commanding Officer are all people you can turn to quickly for help.

Mental Health Resources in Theatre

  • Buddies
  • Leaders
  • Chaplains
  • Medics
  • Medical Officer
  • Mental Health Team

Leaders who want to reduce the stigma associated with mental health problems in their unit need to be consistent. They need to support those who seek help, encourage them, and remind their subordinate leaders that it takes leadership to ensure that those who need help, get it.

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