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Senior psychiatrist wins Sears Award for achievements in Navy Medicine

21 July 2023

From Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Levi Decker, Naval Medical Forces Atlantic

Capt. John Van Slyke, the senior mental health executive for Naval Medical Forces Atlantic (NMFL) earned the Admiral H. James T. Sears Award for contributions to Navy psychiatry, May 11.
The preeminent award has been presented every year since 1990 to senior psychiatrists, and this is the first time in 25 years that there are two Sears Award winners. Van Slyke was recognized alongside colleague Capt. Paulette Cazares, the director of mental health at Navy Medicine Readiness and Training Command (NMRTC) Okinawa, by the Navy psychiatry community. 

“I am very humbled and grateful to be a recipient of the Admiral Sears Award,” said Van Slyke. “There are so many incredible senior leaders within the Navy psychiatry community and to be selected amongst such an esteemed group of professionals really is an honor.” 

For the past two years, the Springfield, Missouri, native has been providing guidance and support to service members in the region as well as counsel to the NMFL commander on all mental health priorities and activities. His work with Special Psychiatric Rapid Intervention Team (SPRINT) contributes significantly to the medical readiness of the force by giving those members the rapid response needed for mental health emergencies. 

“Capt. Van Slyke embodies the epitome of the servant leader,” expressed Capt. Elisabet Crumpler, the public health emergency officer assigned to NMFL and Van Slyke’s department head. “His attention to, and anticipation of, the needs of Navy and Marine Corps forces has led to improvements in how Navy Medicine and more specifically, behavioral medicine assets are deployed throughout the region to best serve our Sailors and Marines. Not only does he work hard as a clinician, but he leads and advises behavioral medicine colleagues in a compassionate and forward-thinking manner.”

Van Slyke was a member of a mental health working group with the Chief of Naval Personnel and Navy Culture and Force Resilience Office that resulted in the publication of the MyNavy HR Mental Health Playbook, which is an important guide for Navy leaders and personnel in managing mental health related issues at the deck plate level. 

“I cannot praise the work and impact that Captain Van Slyke has had on, not just the boots-on-the-ground work in an extremely challenging field, but also his impact on future policy in Navy Medicine,” stated Crumpler. “He is highly deserving of this prestigious award.”

He is also a member of several Navy Medicine mental health related committees and civilian professional organizations that allow him to show his devotion to mental health, such as the Navy Psychological Health Operational Clinical Community and Advisory Board and serves as Co-Chair of the American Psychoanalytic Association Service Members and Veterans Initiative. Additionally, he has served as president-elect and president of the Virginia Psychoanalytic Society for the past two years.

“I hope I can continue to be an advocate for the continued advancement of mental health awareness, including working to increase the access to quality mental health care,” said Van Slyke. “I have held numerous leadership positions in state, regional and national professional organizations, all which are platforms that have allowed me to be an advocate for mental health awareness and treatment.”

The Sears Award reflects Van Slyke’s passion for improving mental health care.

“I am a proponent of listening to my patients with a ‘third ear’ to what is going on at both a conscious and unconscious level,” explained Van Slyke. “My interest is in wanting to understand my patients at a deeper level, and to be able to provide them tools and insight beyond medication management or more supportive interventions.”

The journey for the path of psychiatry began back in Van Slyke’s midshipman days. 

“Over a one-week period while performing an externship on the psychiatry service at the then Naval Medical Center Bethesda in 1993, I felt the call,” reflected Van Slyke. “I had the opportunity to shadow several Navy mental health providers in the outpatient and inpatient settings and the compassionate care they provided to their patients, some with very serious mental illness, really inspired me. While I went to medical school with an open mind as to what specialty to choose, I felt called to pursue a career in Navy Psychiatry and when I did several psychiatry rotations as a medical student, my choice became clear.”

Every career has its challenges, moments that threaten to derail all that one has worked for. Twenty-three years ago, Van Slyke experienced a life-changing moment during his general medical officer tour aboard Sacramento-class fast combat support ship USS Detroit (AOE 4). 

“The most challenging period for me occurred very early in my career; I am a two-time head and neck cancer survivor,” stated Van Slyke. “My general medical officer tour onboard USS Detroit was interrupted in 2000 due to an unexpected diagnosis of squamous cell tongue cancer which required extensive surgery and follow-up. “

After several months of recovery, he was able to resume his Psychiatry Residency at Naval Medical Center Portsmouth (NMCP) in the fall of 2000. However, a year later at the start of his third year, he experienced a recurrent, more extensive cancer that required further surgery and several weeks of radiation and chemotherapy treatment.  

“With the support of family and the NMCP Psychiatry Residency Program, I battled back to resume residency, as my goal and passion had always been to become a psychiatrist,” said Van Slyke. 

Being a cancer survivor has provided Van Slyke with a unique perspective of having been a patient facing a life-threatening illness, and that understanding has allowed him to take an approach to his patients that is rare. 

“Desiring a deeper understanding of psychodynamic aspects of psychiatry to care for my patients and in part spurred by my own experiences as a cancer survivor is what led me to pursue psychoanalytic training at the Washington D.C. Psychoanalytic Institute of the Contemporary Freudian Society,” said Van Slyke. “The process of psychoanalytic training for me fostered a greater understanding of my own life journey, and in many ways furthered my development as a physician, psychiatrist, leader and mentor.”

Van Slyke has always had a zeal for what he does and has never let any of the obstacles in his way stop him, rather they have elevated his success. 

“Pursue your passion and what you love,” advised Van Slyke with a smile. “Do what you can to take on leadership and other responsibilities because you want to make a difference. If you enjoy what you do, the chances are you will excel, and the success will follow!”

NMFL, headquartered in Portsmouth, Virginia, delivers operationally focused medical expertise and capabilities to meet Fleet, Marine and Joint Force requirements by providing equipment, sustainment and maintenance of medical forces during combat operations and public health crises. NMFL provides oversight for 21 NMRTCs, logistics, and public health and dental services throughout the U.S. East Coast, U.S. Gulf Coast, Cuba, Europe, and the Middle East.

Navy Medicine – represented by more than 44,000 highly-trained military and civilian health care professionals – provides enduring expeditionary medical support to the warfighter on, below, and above the sea, and ashore.

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