It struck me during a normal day working at a Rape Crisis Center when I got a call from a young woman who was a recent recruit stationed at a local military base. She told me she had reported being raped by her supervisor, it was dismissed and she was told to drop it or lose her military standing and be dishonorably discharged. She didn’t know where to turn.
I ended up seeing her for over a year, during which time we tried to find out how she could circumvent the military ‘establishment’ and obtain some fair treatment with regards to her sexual assault. Sadly we were not successful and her only recourse was to come see me privately and in secret for fear of people finding out in the military. Her rapist was never prosecuted. Some years later a large national scandal erupted concerning the number of new recruits who were being raped and sexually assaulted en mass on US military training bases and how they were being covered up.
This is one way joining the military can provoke a mental health crisis.
A friend’s brother signed up for the Army at 18 and was deployed overseas to Afghanistan. He came back the only survivor of his platoon, injured but relatively physically well, with crushing PTSD. He developed chronic insomnia, anxiety, clinical depression and had a host of issues that had never existed before, among them, survivors guilt. When he sought help through his local VA he was told he had not served long enough to qualify for many things and his only option was a crowded PTSD group for men, he went a couple of times, there was never enough time to talk about things individually and the anger and tension in the room was overwhelming. He never went back and his VA psychiatrist loaded him up on five medications instead. A couple of years ago another scandal rocked the VA for the over-dosing of soldiers and military personnel of medication for mental health issues, with little therapy or other options being given.
I read about a young man who committed suicide after returning from his deployment upon finding his wife had left him for someone else, and being isolated and unable to re-adjust back into society after being ‘in’ so long. He felt he had nothing to live for, and whilst he did have some old buddies from the tours he did, they were scattered. His isolation and PTSD was untreated and eventually he took his own life. Afterward everyone lamented that more had not been done but nobody thought about that when he was alive. The paltry mental health resources through his local VA which was miles away, were insufficient and outdated. Again, excessive quantities of medication was the norm.
This is the reality of mental health for so many of our soldiers and military who return from dangerous tours and find little by way of mental health support in their communities. The bottom line being, we can’t afford it. Yet, the VA manages to afford many other things, so it is more likely that the priority as is the case world-wide, is not on mental health, despite every published known statistic pointing to the relationship between suicide, illness of all kinds and violence and an inadequate treatment of PTSD and other mental health concerns.
Why don’t we fund mental health?
For those in the military this is crucial because they are being used up and spat out only to be over-medicated and forgotten. Young men who have lost limbs and vigor, get extensive physical rehab but next to none by way of mental rehab. Who doesn’t know that if you lose a limb you will need as much mental as physical ‘work’ to get better? What of the VA and their priorities? Happy to dispense medication or operate, but when it’s a malady of the mind, unable to offer further options? Whilst the VA can be a life-saver it is woefully inadequate as a mental health provider.
The chain reaction of this neglect trickles down. Higher rates of divorce, poverty, disability, inability to work, drug-use, alcoholism, spouse abuse, violence, crime, the list goes on.
If we worked at the source of the issue we would not have to spend most of our time trying to chase the consequences. If you solve the problem to begin with, things would not escalate. How much does it really take to offer better mental health services to our returning forces? Apparently this is not a priority, for counselors regularly apply and are turned away, either because they do not fit the narrow qualifications set out by the VA or they are not hiring, despite a burgeoning need! Psychiatrists see so many VA patients in a day they are overwhelmed and unable to be truly responsive (and responsible!) for each individual. Many times they are done via a satellite link and are not even present in the room.
If you had PTSD would you open up and be candid with a person on a screen?
We exult the bravery of those who join up, and we sing the praises of having a VA system, all well and good, but we need to reinforce this when military return from tours or are impacted by issues that lead to mental health just as much as physical health. Equally, the fears people have when raped, of not getting adequate justice through the military system must change, so that anyone no matter their position and the position of their attacker, can seek justice.
If left unchecked, mental health consequences of rape, PTSD and other mental impacts from working in this field, will go on to have a life-long effect on both the affected individual and their family. Many times we do not realize the family bears the brunt of that person’s return to normalcy. How easy is it to return to normalacy after seeing your platoon shot down and die in front of you? Support for the entire system prevents that system from fracturing, causing a myriad of cracks to appear in a previously sound foundation and this ripple effect can be carried through generations. It goes without saying this applies to both genders, and all law-enforcement as well. More, not less, mental health funding could fix this, but we allocate money elsewhere, thinking mental health is ‘optional’ – try telling that to someone who just saw their friends blown up in front of them.