It seems as if daily we are told how shamefully the military handles the problem of psychological distress and emotional pain for our men and women in uniform. In May, the USA Today newspaper empire asserted that the “Pentagon [is] perpetuating stigmas that hang over treatment, study finds.” (Zoroya, USA Today, May 6, 2016). The military is criticized because it takes mental health issues seriously enough to reconsider security clearances…unnecessarily “stigmatizing” those who have sought treatment.
This supposed stigmatization merits careful consideration. These include the depth and breadth of existing mental health services for active duty personnel and veterans; the conflicted American mindset on mental illness and emotional distress; and the logical outcome of this strange ambivalence.
A person not in the military or close to military personnel, may reasonably be under the carefully groomed media misimpression that the emotional well-being of our soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines is some sort of vague afterthought. Perhaps the general public is unaware that military mental health officers (people who are qualified to be licensed solo practitioners in the civilian world) are found in forward operating bases, combat outposts, and other deployment settings, providing critical incident debriefings, assessments, counseling, and referrals for more comprehensive care. When young men in harm’s way are despondent over a wife’s philandering, or are heartbroken over missing their child’s birth, the mental health officer is there. When there are incoming mortars, the mental health officer is there. When someone’s reaction to the weekly required malaria medication is extreme (malaria meds cause short-lived anxiety in about 1 in 10 people, and for some of that 10%, paranoia kicks in briefly, too), the mental health officer is the one who can figure out what’s going on and have the physician provide an alternative medication for the soldier – saving a military career from dissolving due to what looks like psychosis but is a transient medication side effect. In short, when crises occur, the “doc” or “shrink” or “combat stress lady” (quotes from military personnel) is there.
It is understandable that most civilians are unaware of mental health clinics on military bases, where military personnel and their families can receive counseling. Besides basic counseling services, mental health personnel provide services such as outreach before, during and after deployment, support while preparing for new babies, parent training, marriage counseling, couples’ retreat weekends, substance abuse education, and more. All these are part of the routine in military mental health clinics. Mental health officers are also able to veto a transfer if any member of the transferring family’s health or mental health needs cannot be adequately met at the new location. So…if Mom is being transferred to Base “A” and that area doesn’t have the specialized services that one child in the family needs, the transfer is nixed – possibly by a licensed clinical social worker at Lieutenant rank. The 2nd Lt. just overrode the entire command structure, in the military that is decried for not taking mental health needs seriously.
Then there are the VA system and the Vet Centers. Vet Centers are cousins of the VA. Unlike the VA, Vet Centers require only a DD 214 to provide free individual, couple or family therapy. It doesn’t have to be service-related…but if the problem seems to be service-related after all, the Vet Center personnel can help facilitate connection to the VA proper. These, too, are staffed by people licensed in their respective states as solo practitioners. There are no “not good enough to make it in private settings” amateurs serving in mental health positions.
Finally, there is the difference between benefits (think, Tricare, which is insurance for post-military service) versus service-connected health care (think, the VA system). A lot of veterans get that confused, and any of us who have tried to deal with health insurance and making sense of what is/is not covered, copays and coinsurance, and in and out of network…well, it’s understandable that almost anyone would find it confusing. Fortunately, the VA system and Tricare have professionals who do a lot of work (and get yelled at a lot) in trying to help people understand their benefits/insurance/service-connected health care, and connect them to the right services.
There are mental health services for military personnel and veterans. There could certainly be more, and the services available could be better marketed. In addition…there are stigmas.
Those stigmata comprise one more disgraceful example of too many Americans wanting to have their cake and eat it, too.
The regrettable medicalization of mental health has resulted in the mythology – happily embraced by many in the medical, pharmaceutical and professional-helper fields, as well as by many in the general public – that all mental disorder diagnoses are brain diseases. For example, many professionals will assure you that depression is strictly medical in nature; a brain disease, incurable but treatable by manipulating brain chemistry. Likewise, anxiety is (supposedly) purely a physical issue. People collect Social Security Disability, disability from their employers’ insurance, and other benefits, based upon having some sort of lifelong brain disease (according to psychiatry).
There are plenty of people eager to buy into this. We hear depression is epidemic (what else could we call something that apparently affects at least 20% of women and 10% of men each year, based on prescriptions for drugs?). Well, here is a recipe for depression:
- Maintain a sedentary lifestyle
- Eat a lot of junk food and assiduously avoid adequate portions of healthy foods
- Smoke cigarettes and/or abuse illegal or prescription drugs
- Drink more than one drink daily (females) or two drinks daily (males), or more than your physician recommends, given your particular health profile.
- Cultivate poor sleep habits. Watch television before bed; heck, watch television in bed, or use your smart phone, or tablet, etc. at bedtime. Drink caffeine less than six hours before bed. Wait until night time to argue with your spouse. Have a “nightcap,” which is a short word for “the alcoholic drink that will let you fall asleep more quickly and then wake up at 2 AM and have difficulty going back to sleep.” Eat salty foods before bed to activate your dopamine system and feel a little hyper.
- Avoid exposure to natural daylight.
- Watch lots and lots of television, or streaming video, or play video games, or surf the internet. The more the better. Strive for the national average of 6 hours or more daily (non-work related).
- Spend lots of time on social media. In particular, notice how much your life stinks compared to other people’s (supposed) lives.
- Shop for recreation. Spend money you don’t have on things you don’t need and then keep being surprised when, no matter how fancy the clothes or pricy the electronics, you are still, well, you.
- Be selfish.
- Don’t apologize, and don’t say thank you.
- Think a lot about how much other people are unkind, selfish, lazy, and how generally you are not getting your fair share.
Yes, I just described what an awful lot of people do, and yes, if you do enough of these things, you will probably feel depressed. Yet, as can be seen, every single one of these behaviors is optional for most people. Perhaps someone has physical challenges that prevent them from being active, but otherwise, these all represent choices made, choices which could be changed. If you were to do these things, and feel sluggish, unhappy, uninterested in life, helpless to make things better, etc., and reported this to your doctor, you could easily be diagnosed with depression.
The label depression, of course, is itself suspect. Within the mental health field, we are well aware of a dirty little secret. This secret is carefully hidden by pharmaceutical companies from the unsuspecting, suffering, and happiness-seeking public. That is, the criteria for almost every mental disorder diagnosis is a checklist. Committees review the research, argue about what should and should not be on the various checklists, have professional feuds, and publish the criteria. People are then diagnosed based off a checklist of symptoms or complaints. Those categories are fuzzy – a complaint I hear regularly from graduate students who, perhaps naively, expect pure, clear science. As soon as one set of criteria is published, the process starts all over again. This is how it came to be that, in the current diagnostic manual for the American Psychiatric Association, there is no such thing as bereavement. If you are still moping around after two weeks because someone you love has died, the American Psychiatric Association, in its infinite wisdom, has decided you meet criteria for Major Depressive Disorder. That’s the same Major Depressive Disorder diagnosis that many forces are pushing us to believe is simply a brain disease that requires lifelong treatment. I am not being sarcastic or flippant; it’s their decision, not mine. I was Hospice-trained and, even absent that, I am human and understand that bereavement is a long and painful process, even for the resilient among us.
The decision to eliminate the “bereavement exclusion” was supposedly made, in part, to allow people to use health insurance to pay for grief counseling. (At least, that’s the gossip I hear in mental health circles.) In other words, you are despondent. Someone has died. You go to a counselor. They diagnose you with depression, which is supposedly a brain disease, because you meet checklist criteria. You are now labelled with what many people assert is a lifelong condition due to your sick brain. You will now be able to have insurance cover your counseling (after your deductible has been met, of course). The diagnosis of a major mental disorder will last forever – long after you have forgotten whether you paid a copay or full fee for a handful of sessions, or went to a support group in a church conference room that a therapist facilitated as a volunteer.
Depression is worth discussing as one of the most common diagnoses. Psychiatrists and other physicians provide prescriptions for antidepressants, for example, to about 15% of the adult population annually – and many assert that depression is just a disease, like any other disease, and you have to face that you will be sick and need medication for the rest of your life. If that is the case, then why criticize the Pentagon for being concerned about someone whom psychiatrists assert has a lifelong brain disease having their finger on a trigger, or button, or sensitive data? Why should one person with a particular diagnosis be placed on perpetual disability and another maintain top secret clearance? Which do the people complaining about how the military stigmatizes mental health want?
To be clear, this is not unique to the military. People seek counseling, are unwittingly diagnosed, and discover later that they are deemed mentally ill and a high risk for suicide; perhaps their life insurance rates increase, or their health care premiums increase, and when the premium bills come in, they can’t remember having any mental problems except that time they saw a counselor after their grandparent passed away. The labelling can happen without any mental health treatment at all; if your physician lists a mental disorder as a possible diagnosis (fatigue, depressed mood, and poor sleep being symptoms of lots of problems, psychological and physical) while ordering blood tests (for what turns out to be something medical), that possible mental disorder diagnosis is in your health record, now part of your profile, even if you turned out to be anemic, not depressed.
Even if you are diagnosed with depression, the diagnostic categories don’t adequately describe what is happening, and they should. It is reasonable to expect that professionals, viewing the diagnosis on a chart, immediately discern the difference between these types of experiences:
“I’m depressed and exhausted because I’m having hideous nightmares ever since my buddy was blown up and died in my arms” versus,
“I’m depressed and exhausted because the 5 years I spent doing meth have caught up with me and my brain has been damaged,” or,
“I’m depressed and exhausted (and right now no one, including me, realizes it’s because I am among the one in 10 women who suffer depression as a side effect of chemical birth control).”
Right now, the label doesn’t differentiate. As you dig into the chart, yes, it’s there – but the most superficial record just shows the diagnosis code.
So, let us not pretend that the military is some big, horrid bully for treating serious mental disorder diagnoses as a possible risk factor for clearance. As long as those in power – throughout the medical, insurance, pharmaceutical and government arenas – are manipulating the definition of mental illness, one can hardly blame the military for being overly solicitous about the mental health of our men and women in uniform.
The conundrum of diagnoses and the risk of damage to one’s life explain why some military personnel are suspicious about seeking mental health treatment. We ought not to assume ignorance when they instead go to chaplains (who may be precisely who is needed) for wise and useful guidance. Similarly, they may choose to be self-paying for marriage counseling, stress management or other issues…off the record and off the base, their privacy is as sacred as mental health treatment ever was, before psychiatry yielded to intrusive insurance, and, as the big player in the mental health field, dragged most mental health professionals with it.
Dr. Lori Puterbaugh, LMHC, LMFT, NCC
Posts are for information and entertainment purposes only and should not be construed to be therapeutic advice. If you are in need of mental health assistance, please contact a licensed professional in your area.