Mental Health is HEALTH

An all too important topic, author Thomas Pledger speaks to us about the stigma surrounding seeking help for mental health. As Secretary of Defense and retired four star general Lloyd Austin has stated, mental health is health, period. Let's battle the stigma that seeking help is weak... it is a sign of strength.



I have written and rewritten this article for the last six months. And although it is one of my shorter pieces, this has been one of the hardest for me to write...


Let us start with an obvious statement: mental health is stigmatized. This stigmatization is a problem in society at large. Various pundits have disparaged American Olympic athlete Simone Biles's choice to withdraw from the gymnastic competition and attack professional tennis champion Naomi Osaka's withdrawal from a Grand Slam. Ms. Biles and Ms. Osaka's decisions were based on mental health concerns. At the same time, the pundits do not comment on baseball players or football players placed on the injured list or in need of surgery.


This stigmatization common in society is reflected to a greater extent in the U.S. military. The U.S. military's self-enforced culture of always being capable prevents honest discussions and concerns over mental health.


In Ms. Biles's case, the pundits immediately brought forth the example of former Olympic gymnast Kerri Strug's incredible one-legged vault landing; the other leg was injured in the 1996 Summer Olympics. The Strug-Biles comparison misses the fundamental difference between the two athletes' situations. Ms. Strug was suffering a physical injury to her leg, which the mind was capable of controlling. Ms. Biles, in contrast, was suffering from a mental hindrance, which could easily lead to serious physical injury for Ms. Biles in the atmosphere of gymnastic competition.


As in the case of Ms. Strug in the U.S. military, service members are often expected to work through injuries. A commonly held belief exists and is reinforced in the culture of the U.S. military that going to the medical establishment for minor to moderate physical injuries has an aura of weakness. This belief is compounded by the very real joke that the military medical institution will prescribe generic Advil or Motrin and some water for most ailments. Rue be the service member who receives a profile -- medically directed restrictions on physical activities -- for all the horrible special duties will be coming their way...


Yet, paradoxically, everyone from the local unit up to the Department of Defense monitors the Service members' medical readiness, including the status of your teeth, hearing, and eyesight. This tracking creates a requirement for the Service member to have yearly medical appointments for dental, hearing, vision, labs, and an overall medical physical. These medical requirements have a real purpose, ensuring that the U.S. military is ready to deploy on short notice to environments with little to no support infrastructure for extended periods.


What is not on the list of required or recommended visits is a medical professional for an individual's mental health. This disparity becomes even starker when examining the topics of books published by former and recently retired Service members, all discussing the processes of dealing with a myriad of mental health issues they acquired during their service in the military.


The disconnect between physical and mental development and wellbeing is carried even further. On an average day in an average week, a service member conducts sixty to ninety minutes of organized or individual physical training. Service members are taught how to operate in a gym, on the range, and as members of a team; however, no focus exists on the gray matter between their ears.


MY STORY:


I noticed my first mental health issues in 2018. I was angry a lot for no apparent reason. I was frustrated, and I took my anger out on my family, friends, and occasionally on my colleagues. I did not deal with the issues in 2018, suppressing them and going for physical workouts when I would get furious. I shifted jobs in mid-2019, and things were good at first, then another tumultuous period ensued, and I became frustrated at work and began to hate my job and question why I was in the military, an organization and profession I had loved. Then the pandemic hit, and I was stuck at home with my family, recovering from a medical procedure. As I was recovering from my surgery on the couch, I heard my oldest daughter ask why I was angry all the time. At first, I was internally defensive, but then I took time to think about my interactions with everyone.


- She was right.


It would still take me another month to call my doctor and request a behavioral health and medication referral. The first session was hard; recognizing that I was not a brick wall that could control my emotions was an eye-opening epiphany. Yet every session got easier. It was not that the counselor magically fixed my issues. Instead, much like learning how to use the various weights in the gym, she provided me the techniques I would need to do the mental exercises to work through the issues by myself daily.


As I look back over my military career so far, I recognize that I have historically reinforced the culture of physical and mental toughness while only enabling the physical development of my service members. As I go forward, I hope to balance these demands by creating more resilient individuals mentally and physically.


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