Mental health week is winding down in Canada, so why is it that I feel a bit nutty. I have to admit that I am not sure what mental health week is all about. While we use the term mental health, I think we are actually referring to the opposite: encouraging those people with ‘mental health issues’ to come forward for help and starting broader discussions of things like depression, trauma, or addiction - efforts towards destigmatizing mental disorders. All good things. However, good mental health is not just the absence of a diagnosis – it involves much more than convincing individual people to look for care. In the case of first responders, if we were to take their concerns seriously, we could end up challenging the structures of our social institutions and the usual way of doing business. If we ended up with conclusions that what is being asked of soldiers, police, or paramedics is too much to ask of them, then where would this leave the rest of us? I think we have to get away from the idea that there are acceptable mental casualty rates and look seriously at organizational structures, group expectations, and engrained codes around invincibility that may foster mental distress.
When young men and women enter organizations like the military and other para-military organizations they begin the process of adopting a different identity almost from day one. They learn by watching and doing. Core training is meant to toughen them up and continually test them under pressure, with an eye to ferreting out weak members. Alongside these over-riding mandates, lectures on mental health may be thrown in here and there but they are peripheral to the central value system and the focus of training. Nobody wants to tamper with the way that young recruits are indoctrinated; after all we have been doing it this way for well over 100 years. Fear of standing out, of being seen as weak, and the continual need to belong usually outstrips a member’s thoughts that they might be depressed or so anxious that they cannot focus. So, they have to learn early on how to push away fears, anxieties, and self-doubts and how to dig down and work harder to overcome any mental or physical weakness. At the same time, they are being asked to become ‘mindful’ about signs of mental distress and to engage in steps opposite to their training (e.g., slowing down or talking about their emotional reactions). It is a real conundrum, I think, because they are in a Catch 22 – you have to toughen up, compete, and overcome obstacles and at the same time admit to flaws requiring help from others.
It is blasphemous to suggest tinkering with the fabric of training out of fears of eroding discipline and creating sub-standard soldiers. To change the structure of training where groups of men and women come together in respectful discussions and exercises to decompress pressures as they are mounting and to be taught skills right in the training regimen by the leadership might go a long way in normalizing stress reactions. For example, imagine something like a group Yoga session or an open discussion with leaders on a Friday morning and you have some idea of the challenges to the usual ways of training people. They might receive practical understanding that everybody has a breaking point and be taught how to communicate and how to lower their guard with other members. If we were to consider things like this, I think it would need to be ‘hands on’ and practiced repeatedly just like rifle drills. Lectures alone will never mark a marksman! To my way of thinking, it could bolster unit cohesion and morale, not under-cut it or produce sub-standard soldiers.
For newer members to see more senior personnel take off their ‘work faces’ and become human at the end of a training segment or an operation would be nothing short of transformational. And yes, some members might conclude that they are not up to the challenges that come with this way of life. Just because we have done things one way for a long time is not a reason in itself to continue doing them this way. Is a zero OSI casualty rate an unreasonable goal to aim towards?
John J. Whelan
John J. Whelan, Ph.D., is the author of Going Crazy in the Green Machine, available now on FriesenPress.