Most soldiers remember the Green Zone designation from the Iraq War. Compared to being outside the wire, it was a protected area where it was relatively safe to lower one's guard, rest and recoup, and mentally decompress for a time. Why is this analogy important when it comes to mental health? Despite all the efforts over the past 20 years to develop mental heath programs to deal with operational stressors in military and most first response organizations, many people still do not risk coming forward. From my perspective, the glaring answer to this problem is that it is still not safe. While we can pretend that members will not be judged, that formal mental health will always help, or that they will be able to resume their careers, we know that a tremendous amount of work is yet to be done to humanize many of these workplaces. Reputation is everything to most first responders, including military, police, fire, paramedics, and correctional officers so they remain stoically silent. But, we also know that social isolation is the breeding ground for routine stress and emotional distress to grow into unmanageable reactions. So how do we protect their 'psychological safety' (only jargon, I promise) as they try to mentally decompress without fears of being judged, misunderstood, or sent to the head shop on their way out of employment?
People need to have safe places and safe people within their organizations and within their communities where they can begin to air out things spinning around in their heads or emotional reactions that they can't shake. This means considering designating particular places within units, shifts, or watches where lowering one's guard does not come with the risk of being 'outed' or tagged as crazy. Places and specific people where anything can be said or explored without requiring them to give up control. I recently attended a mental health day organized by paramedics - their level of openness and honesty with each other was inspiring to watch - In mind my they get it. First responders of all types have to start being honest with each other about the benefits and the true costs of doing the job. This is where it has to start because some people will never seek out formal mental health because of the risks of losing one's reputation or employment unless these organizations change fundamentally. And, the reality is that there are not enough qualified mental helpers to go around.
In the meantime, I wonder about the usefulness of a term like 'Operation Green Zone' to think about an initiative aimed at creating practical ways and forums for first responders to connect honestly with each other. To create an environment of psychological safety despite any bureaucratic shortcomings or outdated workplace practices. This is not to say that all workpalces are inadequate or that supervisory practices are oppressive; they just have different priorities - getting the job done with an eye on liabilities and fiscal limitations. Designating areas, particular supervisors/co-workers, or groups as a green zone would be a great place to start; at least in my mind.
I am quite interested in hearing feedback or thoughts about the usefulness of moving this type of initiative forward. It would not be a formal mental health 'program' and it would not rule out a role for formal mental health, if needed.
John J. Whelan
John J. Whelan, Ph.D., is the author of Going Crazy in the Green Machine, available now on FriesenPress.