Posts Tagged ‘#breakingthestigma’

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We’ve all heard about it on TV. Veterans coming home from war with PTSD and all the hotlines and services that are available to help. For the average American who has never experienced war, the first thought is that there is so much great support for the troops. For the veteran, it is not always as easy as just making a phone call and talking to someone about your problems. It is much more loaded than that. And the things that the average troop faces are far different from what a leader, a Non-Commissioned Officer or Officer, must face. With this, I attempt to capture the challenges faced by a soldier who is also a leader when trying to overcome the challenges of behavioral health.
In the military, leaders are held to very high standards. They are expected to live up to a code of values, accomplish the mission and take care of their troops, often all at the same time. A leader must always have the right mentality and be able to keep his/her emotions in check through any situation. Leaders are trained to face the deadliest situations using the most realistic training as possible, but nothing can compare to the experience of true combat. Once the first bullet flies, that leader is changed forever and he/she must now reflect on that firefight and the many more that lie ahead. Through firefight after firefight, the leader is expected to keep his/her head up and do what they were trained to do: lead the troops to accomplish the mission.
Everyone’s experience with war is different. In my time overseas, my experience with direct combat was very light compared to the firefights my buddies went through that lasted for days. Whether you’ve been through 5 or 50 hostile engagements, the experience of knowing you are being shot at changes you as a person. For some it might make them harder. For others it might create feelings of fear, struggle or uncertainty. Everyone copes with it differently. However, VERY few people are able to simply overcome it all by themselves and move on. That’s why the military has such an extensive network of chaplains and counsellors to provide these listening ears to troops who are struggling to cope.
This is a grand concept that briefs well on a PowerPoint. However for a soldier, and specifically a leader, to simply tell their commander that they are going to walk into the behavioral health clinic can be even tougher than going back on a patrol. Just mentioning to your commander that you are having post traumatic stress can be nerve racking. You might be lucky and that commander will understand, but not always. For a leader to say they think they are suffering from PTSD or another behavioral illness, judgement automatically arises. The commander might be thinking: how effective is this leader going to be? Will he stress out on his next patrol and get soldiers killed? Is he capable of taking on the next higher leadership role? If these issues are brought up stateside, questions like “why are you so stressed when there’s no combat here?” might be mentioned or thought of, making the leader feel like an idiot for even bringing it up.
Counseling for leaders is not as stress-free as it is for most normal people. When leaders are counseled, they are judged by their superiors in every facet of their character. To talk openly about issues of behavioral health during a performance counseling might be a red flag or even a death sentence for some leaders depending on where they are in their careers. That is why it is most always never mentioned.
As more troops leave the military, those who stay in with combat experience under their belt might find that those with combat patches become less and less. They might find themselves surrounded by new leaders who have no deployment time and have no idea how to handle someone with PTSD, anxiety, depression, or what have you. How can an officer with no combat experience help a sergeant with 5 deployments? Most likely, a novice supervisor will refer the leader to a veteran counseling service. However, with so many of them out there, how can anyone tell which ones are actually legit and reliable? Dialing the number is only the first step. Then you will have to verbally tell an operator who you cannot see that you need to talk to someone about counseling, which can be awkward and unnerving. If you make it through the health insurance red tape, you will most likely be referred to a civilian counsellor. They will have claimed to have worked with Special Forces and Navy SEALs. Yet that doesn’t change the fact that this person is a civilian who has not seen or done any of the things that the troop has. How can this counselor possibly understand what the veteran is facing?
For veterans who have separated from the military, the challenge of getting help doesn’t get any easier. As veterans who were once leaders in the military search for employment as leaders in civilian life, the same judgements arise of one’s character regarding their issues with behavioral health. Thoughts from supervisors might be similar to what the leader faced in the military. How will the mental illness affect him when dealing with clients or high stress environments? How will he get along with the rest of the employees? Will he spaz out and cause violence in the workplace?
Whether these barriers are real or perceived, they often are experienced specifically by leaders coping with behavioral health issues, making the struggle even harder than most people think. Here’s what I think will help break down these barriers. First, Supervisors of leaders need to get educated on behavioral health and understand that it is not a bad thing. I’m not saying that these supervisors need to go through a firefight themselves, but understand that the people who have been affected by traumatic events are indeed changed but still have worth in this world. Secondly, they must understand that they play a part in helping leaders overcome behavioral health challenges. Leaders are not autonomous. Like their subordinates, they seek orders and guidance in order to lead, and supervisors must do their job to give that guidance and direction. Finally, everyone including the leaders must understand that getting help for behavioral health issues will ultimately make you a better leader and person. Finding the strength to overcome the mental struggles within will make the leader stronger and will benefit the organization in the end. PTSD, anxiety, depression, sleep disorders: none of them are truly curable illnesses; it takes constant work by the veteran and support from the people in his/her life.
Accept it.