Sarah Otto is the 2017 and 2018 Armed Forces Insurance NSWC Dahlgren Spouse of the Year, as well as the co-founder and president of Ohana Homefront Foundation. She launched the nonprofit in 2021 with Natalie Ealy to address the stigma and lack of support for mental health in the military community, as well as awareness and suicide prevention.
“In the military world, we still see such a stigma when it comes to mental health and getting the help that we need. We wanted something that encompassed everything, not just one piece of the puzzle,” explains Sarah. Sarah and Natalie recognized the need for comprehensive care that encompassed the military community, across all branches and across the globe.
Ohana provides confidential support to military families because the volunteers know that sharing personal information can be vulnerable and intimidating, especially within the military community. “We had a sailor reach out, and the first words out of his mouth were, ‘my command is not going to find out, are they?’ That breaks my heart,” says Sarah. “Commands should be able to know [about their soldiers’ mental health], and nothing happens to these active-duty members.”
This nonprofit bridges the gaps in mental health care by offering a range of services: connecting individuals with licensed counselors, offering coaching in a variety of areas such as life coaching or health coaching, and providing peer-to-peer support from other military spouses and veterans who have experienced similar challenges. Ohana prioritizes prompt response when someone calls in, avoiding the timeline many in the military are all too familiar with: hurry up and wait. “You can’t wait when you know somebody is in a mental health crisis; you cannot wait,” Sarah declares firmly. “They can call our hotline, and they can talk to whoever answers. I talked to somebody for 57 minutes the other day. I [said], ‘I’ll stay on with you all night long.’”
Ohana also aims to create a military culture where seeking help is encouraged and supported. Because fear of repercussions can delay service members from seeking mental health help, Sarah highlights the need for change in the leadership’s approach to mental health. Many military leaders have become disconnected from the struggles younger soldiers face, so she encourages command to remember their own experiences. “Anybody in authoritative positions needs to remember that everybody is human,” Sarah urges. “Everybody at one point in their life is going to have a mental health ‘something,’ whether it’s anxiety, panic attacks, depression. Get them help — you get to keep your people, and you’re going to be better for it.”
Sarah was chosen to be one of nine Semi-Finalists for the Second Service Foundation’s Military Entrepreneur Challenge (MEC) pitch competition in Washington, D.C. After attending the MEC’s coaching sessions with experts and networking opportunities, she participated in the pitch competition, where she won a $1,000 grant. Ohana’s plans for the grant, funded by the Samuel Adams Brewing the American Dream program, are to help establish a virtual crisis center with a hotline, text line, and chat line. This initiative aims to provide immediate support to individuals in crisis and then care by staying connected until individuals indicate they no longer require assistance. “We can’t bring anybody back that we’ve lost, but we can honor their memory by doing something and preventing future suicide,” Sarah says.