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Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Mental health poses challenges for the profession of arms. As an active-duty health care provider who has worked primarily in line units over the past decade, I live and hear the same mantras over and over: We are unique. There are solutions. How are we going to address these challenges?

Discipline and forbearance are military cornerstones. From the beginning of our careers, we are taught that devotion to duty and attention to detail will save lives. In some cases, adherence to these principles may save our own. When we are head-to-head with an adversary, the discipline to stay in the fight originates from confidence in our training. Due to this, we devote our efforts to training to accomplish the mission. We put everything into our profession, because it isn’t an ordinary job and leaves us little extra time to explore hobbies or relationships.

If we don’t put all our efforts into our profession, we worry about receiving bad ratings, not being promoted, not being able to retire and not having the lifetime of financial security that serving can offer. More importantly, we know that failing at our mission can result in blood or human lives lost. Without a doubt, it takes a special person with a unique perspective to serve in the military.

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Soldiers train at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington.
(Credit: U.S. Army/Sgt. Adeline Witherspoon)

Our commitment to duty and the profession can be intense and undoubtedly has challenging impacts. The nature of our lifestyle, military family dynamics and fatalities are unique aspects of military service. They have an aggregate effect on how we view the world.

Stress and Strain

The stress isn’t only on us; it strains our families. A recent survey by Blue Star Families found that more than a third of military families who responded said they don’t have someone they can rely on to ask a favor. An uncertain future also causes our families stress. Family members ask military spouses for answers, but more often than not, we don’t know either. If you don’t know how long you’ll be in one place, does your spouse get a job? Spouse employment provides social connections and more financial stability. If your military spouse is deploying at their next unit, does your family go with you, or do they stay where they have some roots? What if your child is in high school? Do you all move, or do you split the family? Geographical separation is painful and has consequences.

We deploy. Friends die. Loss happens through our lifestyle, war or suicide. We are surrounded by it. We become calloused, increasing our sense of loneliness.

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Louisiana National Guard soldiers evacuate residents near Lake Charles after flooding caused by Hurricane Laura.
(Credit: Army National Guard)

We wonder why soldiers have a tough time adjusting to life after service. The term “separating” from the military is appropriate because it feels like a significant portion of your life is gone, similar to ending a romantic relationship. The suicide risk nearly doubles in the first year after someone separates from active-duty service, according to a September 2018 report by the Department of Veterans Affairs Evidence-based Synthesis Program.

Filling the Void

In light of our military life, impacts on families and dealing with loss, many develop coping mechanisms. But instead of real connections with people or things we love—family, friends, community, hobbies, other interests—we fill the void with shallow substitutes.

We are tied to social media. We use it to combat loneliness and boredom, leading further to instant gratification-seeking behaviors that make us less socially connected over time.

Some cope in adverse ways. The heart of the matter is that we lose control. We have anxiety and depression, often from feeling this lack of control, which makes our minds race. Some turn to alcohol or drugs; it eases their minds. Some commit domestic violence; it’s a rash experience of not being able to communicate effectively; they break from the callousness. Some commit suicide; it ends all personal troubles.

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A 3rd Infantry Division tank crew conducts live-fire training in Romania.
(Credit: U.S. Army/Sgt. Dommnique Washington)

In The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom, author Jonathan Haidt describes happiness as the outcome of a formula: biological set point of happiness, plus conditions in life, plus voluntary activities. We often can’t change the first two variables, and we rarely have time for voluntary activities. So, happiness comes down to what we can change: using what we are good at for others while strengthening connections (being “in the zone”), cognitive therapy, medication and meditation.

What can a military member do to cope?

1. Get into your zone. Find ways to do this outside of work. This starts with being present. Some find this in meditation. Others journal. They write down their thoughts to better process what they feel to help them understand what they are going through. Former President George W. Bush paints. Some play an instrument. Notice the activities are repetitive things done consistently. They are things you enjoy and invest yourself in. They turn into activities you look forward to and love, putting yourself back in control.

Many people find this in their hobbies. Hobbies create habits. Positive habits can be preventive to negative health conditions.

Think about your favorite moments in life. For some, it is running, playing sports, going to a concert, reading books or spending time with friends. For the lucky ones, it’s serving in the military. Whatever it may be, the common denominator is you being present, which sets the foundation for being happy.

2. Make real connections with people outside of the military. This could be family, neighbors or people in the community. Discover hobbies outside of work. Volunteer. Empathize and connect with others.

3. Seek cognitive therapy. Don’t be afraid to consult your local Military Family Life Counselor (MFLC), behavioral health officer or Military OneSource. MFLCs don’t have reporting requirements that could cause perceived danger to a career. Treating a concern early can reduce or eliminate more significant issues. Most soldiers who seek out behavioral health providers return to duty and are deployable.

4. Sleep. Soldiers sleep less than our civilian counterparts. Due to combat operations and unpredictable schedules, it can be challenging to achieve consistent, restorative sleep. While that may seem like it prioritizes the mission, it is a setup for mission failure. Only 39% of soldiers hit the target of seven hours of sleep on weeknights, the Army found in its 2019 Health of the Force report. The lack of sleep reduces our ability to be mindful, increases anxiety, and decreases physical and cognitive performance.

The profession of arms has unique challenges to mental health, but these solutions can help ease a troubled mind.