The Military and Mental Health

It is a well-known fact that troops returning from combat missions are very susceptible to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The Department of Defense (DoD) has acknowledged this problem, and is trying to make therapy more readily available to all military personnel who seek mental health treatment.  Additionally, the DoD is trying to educate people about the reality of mental health issues.  Just as in the world at large, military people tend to shy away from seeking help because they are intimidated by the stigma that is attached to having a mental illness.  Along with the stigma comes the insecure thoughts that cause a person to question his/her abilities and value as a contributing member of society.  Members of the military are often afraid that acknowledging a mental health problem will impact negatively on their military career.  They fear that promotions will be less likely, and security clearance out of the question. The result is that fewer military personnel seek treatment, and more commit suicide.

Historically, soldiers perceived themselves as weak, unfit for duty, and unfit for the world in general if they suffered from any mental health issues.  To the military’s credit, instead of ignoring this situation the DoD has dealt with it head on.  Every branch of the U.S. military is taking steps to combat that powerful stigma.  For example, members of the military are no longer required to report their mental health treatments, and they are now permitted to go outside the military system to get the treatment they need.  High-ranking officers are encouraged to share their own experiences with PTSD in order to help others understand that PTSD can be a normal consequence of combat, and that there is help available and hope of recovery.  The DoD is aiming to incorporate mental health well-being into the routine evaluation of the general health of those who have served in combat zones.  As part of that effort, they have added a second therapy session that takes place a number of months after return from combat, and which supplements the one therapy session that was required in the past.

A significant step forward in the DoD’s efforts to encourage military personnel to seek mental health therapy is its anti-stigma campaign entitled Real Warriors Campaign.  The website for this campaign explains that the goal of Real Warriors Campaign is to promote recovery and support for members of the armed forces, veterans, and their families. Important to this goal is providing people with the tools they will need in order to find a path to healing, as well as getting rid of the stigma that is attached to mental health disorders that so often prevents people from reaching out and getting the help they need.  Real Warriors Campaign is trying to help their constituency understand that PTSD, although an invisible wound, is no less serious than a bleeding gut or a lost limb.  Not only does the website open with the words, “Real Warriors/Real Battles/Real Strength. Reaching out makes a Real Difference,” but this message is repeated throughout the site. The phrase “Reaching out for help is a sign of strength” can be found on almost every page, along with phone numbers to call for that important first step of connecting to help, and phone numbers for crisis hotlines.

Serious about its goals, the site also provides a plethora of opportunities for people to connect with others who have faced the same challenges.  One can find message boards, live chat rooms, videos of service members sharing their stories, a place to share one’s own story, cheerleading posters (reinforcing that reaching out is a sign of strength), suggested educational reading material, a list of questions to ask a mental health care professional, and constant reinforcement of the point that getting help is a sign of strength.

In addition, Real Warriors Campaign has linked itself with the National Center for PTSD and the Anxiety Disorder Association of America  providing its readers with a larger pool of resources to help on the path to well-being.