By Lisa Soule, U.S. Army Recruiting CommandAugust 20, 2010
The U.S. Army Recruiting Command is battling the stigma associated with seeking mental healthcare with a personal look into the lives of some of its Soldiers. Soldiers and civilians across the command today observe a "stand down" day for training primarily focused on reducing that stigma. USAREC Soldiers who have sought help will share their stories on a video that will air command-wide on Stand-Down Day.
The video, produced under the direction of Command Psychologist Lt. Col. Ingrid Lim, comes on the heels of similar Army suicide prevention video projects aimed at striking a chord with Soldiers. The anti-stigma video features junior and senior non-commissioned officers who speak candidly about their experience seeking behavioral healthcare and the issues that brought them to that point.
Continuous combat operations have left the Army unprepared for the impact on Soldiers' behavioral health, Lim said. Frequent deployments cause re-exposure and in turn, more issues. Soldiers who have never deployed also have the need for behavioral health care.
"Life happens," she said. "We've got to set conditions for people to mend themselves."
Sgt. Warren Travis, of the Columbus, Ohio, Recruiting Battalion, said when he was exhibiting symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, he couldn't see what was happening, even as his life was so out of control a county agency stepped in to check on his children and living quarters. Although he was assigned to recruiting duty, Travis found that part of him was still really in Iraq.
Recalling his 15-month deployment as an Army medic, Travis said, "I left something there." His wife noticed he wasn't the same person and the two drifted apart, neglecting their house and children, prompting a call to an outside agency. "We were just existing," Travis said. After an inspection of his home, Travis broke down and his leaders took him straight to the hospital. After seven months of treatment, Travis said he is feeling better. People are noticing that his mood is lighter and most importantly, his wife is starting to see the man she married.
Seeking care for behavioral health issues can seem contrary to traditional soldier training and instincts, said Command Sgt. Maj. James Watson of the Oklahoma City Recruiting Battalion. "We're conditioned response people," he said. "We're conditioned to ignore noise on the battlefield, ignore pain, and ignore injury to complete the mission. Eventually it will go away."
But when it comes to behavioral health issues, Watson said the problems don't go away.
Watson, a 41-year-old combat veteran, shared his story on the video. After several deployments as an infantryman, Watson said he had seen numerous combat-related tragedies. But something he saw during a visit to a casualty assistance team in Balad triggered a different reaction. The father of four daughters felt his patriarchal instincts kick in at the sight of a horrifically injured female Soldier. The vision lodged in his head and he couldn't let it go.
"It hurt my heart," he said.
Watson sought behavioral health care after he wrestled the issue on his own for about three months - a wait he said was "too long." As a sergeant major in the Army, he hopes his story will help junior servicemembers feel comfortable seeking the help they need.
"This is a new kind of conditioning," said Lim. "We've trained Soldiers to give help, but not ask for it."
After a recent recruiter suicide in June - the fourth one this calendar year - USAREC Commander Maj. Gen. Donald Campbell acknowledged the stigma about seeking help and called for vigilance in overcoming it.
"Until we end this stigma, we'll continue to have days like... today...these days are just plain unacceptable. We need each other's support and vigilance if we're to win this battle," Campbell said. "Our stand-down day will cover a variety of topics with increased focus and education on comprehensive Soldier fitness to help each of us build resiliency and be ready to help any team member who may be experiencing trouble. We must train ourselves to observe each team member carefully, methodically and with a heightened degree of concern."
Lim suspects the stigma about seeking help comes in part from the mystery that often surrounds the ins and outs of obtaining behavioral healthcare.
"The stigma stems from wondering about others' perceptions and about not knowing what to expect when it comes to setting an appointment. These are subconscious questions," Lim said. "We are trying to bring them out in the open. This is not a common experience, but it is becoming more common and we need to make it easy."
The USAREC video is one way to lift the veil on the process and help create a map, Lim said. "We're saying if you go down this road, this might happen, and you will feel better in the long run. It's a confidence course of sorts."