Mental health is poorly understood generally; our understanding has been obscured by sensationalized reports through the popular media and by the involvement of the pharmaceutical industry. Many of these outdated myths easily portray mental declines as an invisible enemy. This is due in part to our inability to discuss mental-emotional distress openly and because of the lack of consensus within our professional communities. Instead, we judge those who report problems as being different than the rest of us somehow in our efforts to protect ourselves from being afflicted. It is also equated with older notions of madness, insanity - losing control of one’s faculties and being rendered helpless in a bottomless abyss.
These longstanding misconceptions are a leftover from the Freudian concepts of biological and moral ‘degeneration’ which work to strengthen our collective silence and possibly even our reliance on experts. The reality is that most people travel back and forth along a mental health continuum throughout their lives. Some people remain on the healthy end of this spectrum for the majority of the time and at other times they move or slip into what is generally termed mental illness. The considerable research into psychological stress tells us that one’s mental health status usually coincides with the waxing and waning of life challenges and is influenced more than most people may realize by our social context and by our relationships. By constructing mental distress as an enemy to be struck down and slain, we also create an unnecessary ghost to be feared. Instead, if we discuss mental health – good or bad - as a reflection and as a consequence of social context and relationships, this enemy can be seen for what it is - a normal and expected part of the human condition.
Mental distress often serves as a mirror reflecting the ways in which we organize modern life and how we go about the business of navigating day-to-day challenges along with other fellow travelers. In terms of our military, then, the rise in mental health problems may be signaling fundamental shifts in the nature of relatedness within the organization – a shift towards impersonal, bureaucratic practices and away from the personal. In the aftermath of combat and other deployments, soldiers seem to be searching for people and places within the institution where they can safely decompress and regroup. A question worth consideration is whether patient symptoms reflect particular things about military service, including the phenomenon of emotional numbness and exhaustion- the personal price to be paid for stoic adherence to a well-established military ethos and confusion about finding a new place to be in the world.
John J. Whelan
John J. Whelan, Ph.D., is the author of Going Crazy in the Green Machine, available now on FriesenPress.