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 Many of these outdated myths easily portray mental declines as an invisible enemy.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.
Many Canadians are vaguely aware of the military's steady involvement in overseas operations over the past 20 years. For many soldiers, however, memories of these places torment them daily. They are haunted; they are changed from who they were as proud men and women. How do we support these soldiers to find their way back home? The story of Master Corporal Billy Reardon is an intimate portrayal of his journey from young man to mentally wounded military veteran. We see the world through his eyes as the toll of his deployments mount and as he struggles within the mental health system. We also see him find recovery and reconnection to the military brotherhood along with other veterans. Billy's story raises questions about the roles of front-line leadership and challenges health providers to develop an intimate understanding of military culture as a prerequisite to assisting traumatized veterans and their families.
With a powerful sense of time and place, Going Crazy In The Green Machine by John J Whelan brings the often lost aftermath of war into sharp focus. It’s devoid of trite cliché and in many ways is a quiet, thoughtful narrative that patiently tells its story without ever losing the thread of a tale we must never forget. That of Master Corporal Billy Reardon and countless more whose lives are irrevocably transformed by their experiences. It’s a story that has been told many times over in a multitude of mediums, yet few have managed to capture the poignancy of Whelan’s telling. It’s about a soldier, but more importantly a human being struggling to make sense of something that to the vast majority will remain unknowable. Whelan conveys this in realistically painful terms from a fictional viewpoint, but his social commentary is incredibly thought provoking and the reader is unable to escape the realisation that no one returns from war the same person. Whelan certainly has his own highly personal and informed perspective. He’s seen the harsh realities PTSD and is at the frontline in treating proud men and women who have given above and beyond anything society in general could ever experience.
Well written and highly thought provoking, few readers will remain untouched by Going Crazy in the Green Machine. An absolute must read, it is recommended without reservation
Excited to read the review of the book by BookViral
We are often led to believe that everyone who experiences trauma and PTSD are the same. The events that trouble people may be the same but there are major differences between those people who recover quickly (within about 6 months) and other people who struggle for years and decades later. Recovered people tend to face the situation or ask for help from others relatively quickly, they usually have a support system in place that they use actively, they trust in other people, they are willing to let their emotions show if needed, and they refuse to be a victim and tend to actively engage in correcting their situation. People who struggle tend to be those who learned early in life how to be tough and to rely only on themselves, many of them are loners and while they will go out of their way to help anybody they do not ask for or know how to accept help from others, they dismiss emotions as weakness and as a source of embarrassment, and they are often bitter and secretly blame other people for their situations.
The things that help people move beyond PTSD can be summarized by the following:
1. Revisit - Many people rehash bad memories and events on their own but rarely do they check it out with other people who were part of the event. Sometimes, this means telling other people about one’s fear that they failed or that they were let down by other people. Two veterans had ended up in a group I was running by co-incidence; they revisited a terrible incident from a decade earlier and the effect on the younger veteran was nothing short of liberating. Revisiting means getting off your chest whatever it is that you have to say about what happened in a safe environment or even a therapy session. It does not come down to a finger-pointing event but a mature way to get the facts straight.
2. Re-evaluate – Be willing to hear other people’s perspective and be willing to accept what they have to say to you. If a formal step is needed to resolve a grievance then take it. The blame-resentment approach tends to keep the past alive. Stoic people often need to take a second look at the usefulness of trying to go it alone.
3. Repair – For many people, this is a crucial step in moving ahead. Be willing to accept or to give an apology. Take corrective steps where possible, including amends to those harmed. I know of many veterans who have sought out old buddies or visited the gravesites and families of friends they lost years and decades earlier. Repair also means coming out of isolation and re-engaging with your group, section, or family. Remember, they have also missed you.
4. Recommit – Decide for yourself, honestly, whether you are still able to serve instead of having other people decide for you. The latter tends to fuel resentment and feeling betrayed. Whether you have ‘a new normal’ or not, visualize the person you want to be, in or out of uniform, and invest energy in becoming that person despite challenges or setbacks. We all need a direction in life; backwards is not the one to pick.
John J. Whelan
John J. Whelan, Ph.D., is the author of Going Crazy in the Green Machine, available now on FriesenPress.