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Changing the Conversation on Mental Health in the Military

December 15, 2017

When you think of the military, what is the first thing that comes to mind? Some may think of intense physical training and mental toughness. Others may think of the honour and sacrifice that comes from serving one’s country. Many people, however, may not be aware that military service can cause significant mental duress, illness and post-traumatic stress.

Mental health issues have a long history in military institutions around the world. When soldiers began returning home from World War I with physical ailments, such as uncontrollable shaking and the inability to speak, some started to question whether the shock of war was to blame. British journalist Philip Gibbs observed, “Strong, sturdy men, shaking ague, mouthing like madmen, figures of dreadful terror, speechless and uncontrollable.” Some 80,000 soldiers were diagnosed with mental impairment so severe they could no longer serve in the military. Soldiers were even shot for cowardice and desertion after showing signs of what was later referred to as ‘shell shock’.

One hundred years later and soldiers who return from war are still suffering from similar trauma. In a 2014 letter written to President Obama, a young woman from North Carolina recounted the pain endured as a result of her father’s military experience. She wrote, “As part of the infantry, he deployed on six occasions. Each deployment, my father came back less and less like himself. […] But after he retired, my father was forgotten. […] He was diagnosed with severe PTSD and was medically disabled.” After seeing her family suffer through a traumatic ordeal because of her father’s mental health, she asked the president to take action. “I’m asking you to help the others,” she wrote. “The little girls and boys who have yet to see their mothers’ and fathers’ souls die away. They need help. Get them help. Don’t forget about them. They need you.”

These moving words from a daughter highlight the importance of addressing mental health concerns among military service members. While the terminology and treatment of soldiers who suffer from various mental illnesses has certainly improved since WWI, there is still a long way to go.

One effort to address this critical issue is being spearheaded by The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, Prince Harry, and The Royal Foundation in Britain. Together they launched Heads Together, a campaign that aims to break the stigma around mental health and balance the traditional priorities of military institutions with the need for physical and mental resilience training and services for their members. Recently, the three royals released a video in which they discussed their personal experiences with mental health and emphasized the power of simple conversation in addressing mental health concerns. They encouraged individuals who felt isolated to reach out to a friend, a co-worker, or a family member to share their experiences.

Heads Together is also partnering with the British Armed Forces to bring mental health to the forefront of military training. In announcing this new initiative in early October 2017, Prince Harry, himself a veteran, said he is aiming to “fundamentally change the conversation on mental health inside the military.” British Secretary of State for Defense Sir Michael Fallon said, “Warfare is often seen in terms of battles of the body and today we are properly recognizing that it is also about battles of the mind.” 

With support from other mental health charities, the initiative is taking a two-pronged approach: building mental health resilience through training and providing services to those who are already suffering from mental health challenges. The resilience side was referred to as “mental fitness” by the Chief of Defense People at the Ministry of Defense, Lt. General Richard Nugee CBE. Focusing on mental fitness is a proactive stance that encourages service people to manage their mental health. This is a radically different approach, as traditionally mental health has been addressed only after a crisis occurs.

Fortunately, conversations around mental health today are entering the mainstream, and military institutions — long seen as averse to ‘mental weakness’ — are taking the issue seriously. This demonstrates the extent to which societies today are adapting to support the most isolated and vulnerable among us, and building social connectedness.