We are all working to do the right things to help individual soldiers look after their mental health. From command level, the medical and health promotion systems, and the grass-roots networks across the country - each one is doing their part to make it OK for people to come forward for help. However, we have all been told from day one that there are no individuals in the military, so, I think we have a problem! By focusing mental health as a private, individual responsibility and not looking at unit mental health, we end up making members into individuals once again. As we know, individuals exist outside the collective and there is no place for them. My question is, why wait until individual soldiers can’t bear it any longer? Sure, some of them are angry or let-down over things that happen on deployments, some feel ashamed or guilty, and some are simply mesmerized trying to make sense out of their experiences. But everyone is affected – either positively or negatively and most people have questions. The biggest ones – do I still belong, who are we now, where do we go from here?
Fear of standing out, cynicism, and shame are powerful forces that keep soldiers alone with their questions. In my experience, the things left unpacked at a unit level undermines cohesion and can develop into mental health problems for some members over time – each soldier fears that he or she is alone. The great news is that we already have a built-in system for soldiers and veterans to unload their stuff with each other – we exist in groups. But, I don’t mean bringing people together to single out ‘the messed up ones’ – this approach would undermine reconnection and could push some people further underground. But, what if sections or units had the chance to regroup in safe, honest, and well-run groups as a normal part of coming back home – not just because of a critical incident? Again, this would not be aimed at identifying those with ‘the problems’ – we all have problems, so this misses the point entirely. In my view, safe places to let down one’s guard with people who understand are entirely possible. Routinely unpacking and regrouping in the brotherhood is a much healthier way to go.
John J. Whelan
John J. Whelan, Ph.D., is the author of Going Crazy in the Green Machine, available now on FriesenPress.