Programs in mental health focus on correcting symptoms that are designed by academic experts and imported for use with various populations. These can be very helpful but they do not deal with the context where ‘mental health problems’ develop in the first place. If we were to ask soldiers to design the types of things that would help them, there are a number of things that might be designed differently. Topping the list would be an emphasis on forums where they could safely talk about the things that happened to them within their units before, during, and after their deployments along with peers where they can unload the things that bother them without running the risk of being embarrassed or outed as a ‘head case.’ They might also want to know what they can do within the system to address issues like harassment or administrative hiccups that may be undermining them. Some would want to know the steps in holding specific people accountable for operational events or mistreatment that are at the root of their issues. They would want assurances that senior leadership has their backs without singling them out as troublemakers or broken toys.
They would want access to the subject matter experts on military mental health and know that anything that they say has been heard before and that the expert knows what to do about it. They would want to be as prepared as possible before engaging and they would want a variety of scenarios broken down by the numbers into understandable steps. Before engaging, they would want a mapped layout of the ground and a clear understanding of their fall-back positions where they can regroup and resupply and from there decide whether to re-engage or to withdraw to safety. They would want clear reasons for courses of action and concrete goals along the way to keep their bearings.
They would want choices about alternative courses of action and they would want a say in changes to their employment status. They would want more control over the pace and the type of treatments being offered to them without being tagged as non-compliant or faking. They would also want someone they trust take an oversight role to watch their backs when they enter unknown territory – that someone is looking out for them. They would want to know that the people they are being asked to trust, truly understand military culture and they would want to know upfront the risks to their careers if they step forward to ask for help. They would ask for a drastic reduction in medical jargon including the tag of mentally illness. Instead, they would want to deal with their issues within the context of their training, units, and their military careers. With these things in place, they might be open to taking the leap, if needed, to talk to strangers about their stuff.
John J. Whelan
John J. Whelan, Ph.D., is the author of Going Crazy in the Green Machine, available now on FriesenPress.