It is impossible to miss the media attention on the issue of mental health strains among first- responders driven by sensationalized reports of suicides among these men and women. This public attention and call for better interventions and services have produced responses in some sectors and at the same time the peculiar notion of ‘self-stigma’ is also entering our everyday language. It is no secret among people who know me that I am no fan of buzzwords – the latest fashion words among those supposedly in the know which are packed with assumptions and unspoken shared views among decision-makers about how the world is supposed to work. At its core, stigma is a social mark of shame; the failure to live up to the beliefs and values of the group warranting exclusion and banishment. It has an essential role in controlling everyday life, in almost every culture. Application of this term to the person amounts to a subtle shift of responsibility away from something done by the group to something done to oneself. Why reject and judge ourselves, then? Could it be a result of successfully internalizing the values of the larger group and then judging oneself because of a failure to meet these expected standards and values. Well, this is the whole premise of socialization – the process of becoming accepted members of the social group. In military terms, this amounts to internalizing military values as part of indoctrination into the culture. Along with values of strength, integrity, and dependability, the golden rule is to not stand out – to fit in with everybody else. A member’s sense of competence and self-respect hinges on the views of other members of the group. The risk of being shamed in military circles is ever-present because it serves as a powerful guarantor of uniformity. The risks range from possible embarrassment or ridicule in front of one’s peers to being singled out by superiors whose responsibility it is to root out suspected weak members of the group.
However, self-stigma carries the implication that a member’s self-judgement is independent of military culture and values, and prevents them from taking responsibility to solve the mental health issue. Sure, ultimately we each have responsibility for our health generally, including our mental health, but a soldier’s mental health is greatly influenced by group acceptance and shared values – what others think matters tremendously. Adapt, endure, overcome is a powerful mantra that is reinforced every day. It is in direct opposition to admitting to limitations and shortcomings. How are military members to reconcile these competing messages since they cannot both be true? The reaction by members to possibly judge themselves harshly for having mental health concerns excludes from the conversation the impact of organizational culture. Everyone knows of a horror story among one of their buddies – ‘hero to zero’, being left off a deployment, struggles to find adequate care, premature end of careers, and protracted disputes for pension and other supports following release. The centrality of military values and the occurrence of these other issues need to be discussed openly if we are intent on encouraging people to come forward. What if, part of the solution to the issue of ‘self-stigma’ meant challenging core military values around uniformity, strength and independence? I am not sure if anybody would or should tamper with the fabric of the organization but we can’t deny that it is also needs to be part of the discussion on military mental health.
For those who risk coming forward, solutions and possible ramifications need to be spelled out if there are to be safe alternatives to private suffering. As it stands, there are incredible risks to adopted military values, self-image, and livelihood for members to step forward and to self-identify. There have to be parallel assurances that these risks will be minimized and that they will be protected. Otherwise, introducing the idea of self-stigma to any first-responder group runs the risk of being just another weight for them to carry - not only do they have mental health problems but they may also be the cause of their own distress. The functioning of organizations, backward beliefs among key managers, and the day-to-day unrealistic expectations placed on these men and women are not discussed. Why is this? Part of the problem in Canada, is the reluctance to explore sociological factors that may challenge institutional priorities and accepted ways of doing business as usual. My question is always the same - What if Canadians had little choice but to think seriously about the responsibilities and expectations placed on ‘heroes and protectors’ – the terrible things they face every day while ordinary people remain oblivious to the harsher realities of life? Maybe, part of the problem is that these expectations are simply too high in the end.
John J. Whelan
John J. Whelan, Ph.D., is the author of Going Crazy in the Green Machine, available now on FriesenPress.