Silence is Golden; But Not in the Face of Mental Health Issues
Posted by Sana Perry on January 22, 2015 7:55 PM EST
Ms. Perry is a Give An Hour Student Liaison and Advocate for Military and Veteran Communities.
Mental and/or emotional health issues are difficult to broach; and confronting these topics can be especially challenging for those who have served or are currently serving in the military. While some suggest post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is overemphasized in stories featuring veterans, mental and emotional difficulties often profoundly shape the realities of those who have served. In fact, the U.S. Department of Defense found that—next to combat-related fatalities—suicide is the second most common cause of death in the military. Additionally, in 2014, a RAND Corporation study indicated that civilian mental health professionals were woefully underprepared to meet the needs of military personnel and veterans. Silence on these issues, then, simply serves to isolate, malign, and pathologize those we tend to acknowledge only twice a year—Veterans’ Day and Memorial Day, respectively.
When Silence is Corrosive
Despite a recent and unprecedented rise in military/veteran suicides, Howard Altman, a military affairs journalist for The Tampa Tribune, suggested that the media—particularly during Veterans’ Day—distorts the psychosocial realities of veterans by overemphazing PTSD. In spite of this assertion, the problem is not an overemphasis on stories featuring PTSD-afflicted veterans. To the contrary, the real issue lies in a lack of substantive discourse on mental and emotional health concerns within military and veteran communities. All too often these issues are reduced to slogans and sound bites 2 days—Veterans’ Day and Memorial Day, respectively—out of a 365-day calendar year.
This lack of conversation sadly coincides with a disturbingly low percentage of civilian mental health professionals competent in assessing and treating the unique mental health issues of service members and veterans. According to a 2014 RAND Corporation study, “[only] 13% of the 522 mental health providers surveyed met the study’s readiness criteria for both cultural competency and delivering evidence-based care” (Military Family.org, 2014, para. 2). Additionally, expanding “effective training in evidence-based PTSD and MDD [Major Depressive Disorder] therapies” was among the RAND Corporation’s “recommendations for policy and program officials” (para. 4).
Given the abovementioned need for increased education concerning the mental health needs of service members and veterans, it is rather perplexing that anyone would advocate for decreased coverage of service-connected PTSD. This would most likely only further pathologize and misrepresent an already small (approximately 1 percent of Americans serve in the military) and oft-misunderstood population. It is no wonder, then, that this population—forged in a culture given to stigma and reticence regarding mental health treatment—is typically inclined to stoically self-medicate and rebuff invitations to seek help.
Mental Health is Not a Monolith
Another problem is that mental health issues in general and PTSD in particular are routinely viewed as all or nothing, monolithic afflictions; yet every individual’s battle with mental or emotional pain is different. It is also true, though, that there are those in uniform who do not suffer from PTSD. According Dr. Kerry Ressler, Emory University Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, some individuals are indeed able to process their trauma(s) and recover without developing PTSD. Notwithstanding, this does not preclude the need to research and openly discuss the myriad biopsychosocial stressors facing veterans and active duty military personnel.
Words Can Hurt
Mr. Altman, however, maintained: “‘[for me], every day is Veterans’ Day, because of my beat [journalistic area of expertise]… [and those] who have PTSD and those who are treating it, that’s my everyday life’” (Nesmith, 2014, para. 4). He went on further to state, “‘I think the narrative of crazy veterans is probably overdone’” (para. 4). Altman is not alone in this thinking. He appears to rely chiefly on the opinions of two veterans, retired Navy SEAL Cmdr. Steve Rutherford and Retired Master Sgt. Scott Neil, to support his views; but the belief that “‘the overwhelming majority of veterans are doing ok'” seems to gloss over the admittedly “‘tough transition’” back to civilian life (para. 9).
While Messrs. Rutherford, Neil, and Altman argued that the prevalence of mental health problems in veteran and military communities is exaggerated, unfortunately, recent data do not support their claims. In fact, the U.S. Department of Defense found that “[since] 2010, suicide has outpaced traffic accidents, heart disease, cancer, homicide and all other forms of death in the military besides combat” (Zoroya, 2012, para. 1).
In a climate already teeming with misconceptions surrounding military and veterans’ issues, it is both disappointing and unacceptable that Mr. Altman, an experienced military affairs journalist, would frame polarizing opinions on veteran mental health in such irresponsible language. Altman’s poor choice of words fall far short of innocuous satire. Instead, they serve as unequivocal vestiges of a ponderously ignorant sentiment that helped to isolate and malign a generation of young heroes—labeling them as merely “crazy Vietnam vets.” In short, the hackneyed narrative of shaming and minimizing the struggles of those transitioning back to civilian life must end now.
The truth is, whether one has endured 12 enervating weeks of recruit training or extended deployments to combat zones, your service changes you. To assume otherwise is to diminish and deny the unique experiences and challenges of those who do not necessarily meet DSM-V criteria for a diagnosis of PTSD. Perhaps there will come a day when PTSD and related maladies will only be discomfiting footnotes in our collective memory; but, at this juncture that day has simply not arrived. We have much progress to make with respect to the state of mental and emotional wellness in our veterans, service members, and military-connected families. The conversation must continue as we work to create environments devoid of derogation and denial, so that we may facilitate healthy careers in the military and seamless transitions to civilian life.
Nesmith, S. (2014, November 11). A different approach to Veterans’ Day coverage. Columbia Journalism Review. Retrieved from http://www.cjr.org/united_states_project/happy_veterans_day.php
Military Family.org. (2014, November 17). Study shows mental health needs of service members and military families are not met. Retrieved from http://www.militaryfamily.org/featured-news/mental-health-needs-not-met.html?referrer=https://www.google.com/
Zoroya, G. (2012, June 14). Suicides No. 2 cause of death in military. USA TODAY. Retrieved from http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/military/story/2012-06-13/military-suicides/55585182/1#uslPageReturn
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© 2015-2016 by Sana M. Perry; this article may not be rewritten, published, broadcast, or redistributed in whole or in part without the express written consent of the author.
Last modified: 29 March 2016