Mental Health in the Military: A Parable

Sometimes, as you trod along the road of life, you look up, trying to get a glimpse of what lies ahead. Sometimes it’s dark and gloomy, and you realize it’s been been growing so for some time. There isn’t much to see. Peering through the murk is exhausting, as is trying to navigate with the few road signs and azimuths that you allow yourself.

“But this is normal,” you tell yourself. “Everyone goes through this.”

So you trudge on.

As it gets darker, you reassure yourself, “Sure, people struggle. But other people struggle, not me. I’m strong. I’m mentally tough. I’m an Army leader. I got this.”

You press forward again.

Weary, you remind yourself, “If you’re going through hell, just keep going.” So you tighten your metaphorical coat around you, mutter another platitude – “This, too, shall pass,” – and stride on.

“Watch out for PTSD,” say all the Army roadsigns. And you do. But you don’t have traumatic stress, you reason, so that means you’re doing just fine, right? Right. Time to ruck up and drive on.

So you do.

“Maybe I should ask someone for help,” you think. But the old midwestern mantra rings back through your head, overriding everything else: the greatest sin of all is to inconvenience someone else with your own problems. “Plus,” whispers part of your brain, “asking for help would make you look weak. And your career might suffer.”

On. Again.

But as time goes on, the gloom seems to become a permanent part of the road. It doesn’t pass. It seeps into every part of life and steals the small joys away. It climbs onto your back and adds itself to the weight of everything else, like some sort of freakish, ever-expanding rucksack from hell: relationships, family, work, command, deadlines, phone calls, meetings, emails, deployments, snowballing stress…and the ever-growing feeling that you just aren’t doing enough. That you should be doing more; should be more productive.

And yet, you continue on in the persistent belief that this is just normal – even as the fear grows stronger that this type of normal is untenable.

This might sound familiar to some of you – many of you – in the military. We have unique and constant stressors in our lives. We move from position to position, from deployment to deployment, with responsibility increasing along the way. And we’re told to create a work-life balance, to always make time for family, to make sure we have a good PT regimen, to always be looking after each other, to never leave anyone behind, to always push ourselves to be better…and then we suddenly wake up one day and realize there’s nothing left in the tank. We’re running on fumes.

Maybe we prop ourselves up with caffeine or nicotine to try to keep pushing through the long days; maybe we drink too much to push back the ever-increasing feeling of being unable to cope with the stress. Maybe we throw ourselves into healthier hobbies that nonetheless merely stave off the darkness and do nothing to solve it.

Maybe, for many people, they grow so trapped that they feel like there can be no way out.

Because that’s what depression and stress do.

I should know, because the person in that opening parable was me.

It took me years to realize I needed help, and then another six months from there to finally pick up the phone, call Military OneSource, and begin therapy. And that was even with a supportive group of friends who were all open and honest about their mental health struggles. For those who do not have those positive role models or examples, asking for help is an even harder thing to do.

With therapy and medication, I’m able to see down the road again. And while there are twists and turns, and maybe a few foggy places, the dark clouds have been dispersed. There’s still a weight on my back, but it’s manageable. I’m able to stand more on my own with healthy coping mechanisms as the therapy appointments become less needed. The load is lighter and so now I actually have the bandwidth and patience to be more present as a leader, as a friend, and as a family member. Seeking help has made me stronger, not weaker.

This is why I’d like to challenge military leaders to do something new as we combat veteran suicide. Sure, continue to do 22 pushups a day to bring awareness, but I’d challenge leaders to do something even more dramatic: be open about your mental health struggles. In the military, we’ve somehow made mental health taboo. People are afraid to seek help because they think it will impact their careers or make them appear weak. They look at their leaders and think, “Those are people who have never had to ask for help; if they do it, so can I.”

Let’s be positive models for those around us. Let’s erase the taboo. Let’s make seeking mental health treatment no different than getting treatment for a physical malady. Let’s work to make mental health treatment free for veterans. Together, we can make a difference and help each other to see clearly again.

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About the Author: Angry Staff Officer is an Army engineer officer who is adrift in a sea of doctrine and staff operations and uses writing as a means to retain his sanity. He also collaborates on a podcast with Adin Dobkin entitled War Stories, which examines key moments in the history of warfare. Support this blog’s Patreon here.

Cover Photo:   Free image courtesy of Pexels.

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