Last week, as my mother and I were looking through a family photo album, she pointed out a picture of my great-grandfather in his military dress. I had always known he served in World War I, but that day I found out just how much his service cost him and his family.
After the war, because of the traumas he experienced on the battlefield, he suffered from life-long Post-traumatic Stress Disorder. My great-grandmother supported their family as a seamstress; her husband couldn’t hold down a job due to severe and chronic alcoholism. His illness and the way he attempted to cope with it overshadowed the rest of his life.
This kind of story was, and still is, all too common among veterans returning from active duty. In my great-grandfather’s day, it was called shellshock, and was frequently attributed to a “lack of moral fiber,” which was a military euphemism for “it’s your problem, not ours.” Today, we understand what Post-traumatic Stress Disorder is; psychologists have identified the causes, the symptoms, and even outlined effective treatments for it.
So why, then, are we still seeing so many soldiers needlessly suffering from PTSD? Why are we still seeing so many veterans becoming homeless after they are unable to re-acclimate to civilian life? Why are we still seeing horrific incidents like the murder-suicide committed by an Iraq war vet last Thursday? Why are more veterans dying from suicide than in combat? Why are there still so many veterans suffering silently, self-medicating, and just managing to get by the way my great-grandfather did?
Well, for one thing, while our government talks a good game about “supporting the troops,” it’s shown that political interest in “the troops” ends as soon as their deployment does. For a very long time, while Congress was quite happy to write check after check to fund the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to the tune of trillions of dollars, they were much more reluctant to fund the Department of Veterans Affairs and other programs that would help veterans returning from combat.
Recently members of Congress have introduced bills intended to direct more funding to help veterans, but predictably these bills have been caught in the gridlock of the least productive Congress in history, so I wouldn’t count on those agencies receiving more funding anytime soon.
However, Congressional double-talk and inefficiency isn’t the cause of this issue, but rather another symptom. The root cause is that, despite all the progress made in the field of psychology in identifying, analyzing and treating PTSD, societal perception of the problem doesn’t seem to have progressed very far beyond the “lack of moral fiber” days that my great-grandfather suffered through.
Mental illnesses like PTSD and clinical depression aren’t viewed in the same light as physical illnesses like influenza or cancer. They’re viewed, to a large extent, as a personal flaw, a character weakness, and stigmatized as such.
This problem is further exacerbated by the fact that most veterans are men, and men in our society are taught from a very young age that expressing discomfort or pain is a sign of weakness and femininity. This belief is especially reinforced by the internal culture of the military, where raw recruits who conform to the norms of modern society, where violence and killing are strictly verboten, are turned into soldiers who must be ready to follow orders without question and kill at a moment’s notice.
Is it any wonder, then, that these veterans, rather than seeking help for their condition, try to ignore the problem and stifle their feelings until it ends in tragedy?
Recently, Harry Potter actress Emma Watson, now the Goodwill Ambassador for U.N. Women, gave a speech announcing a new campaign for gender equality called HeForShe. In this speech, Watson discusses how the issue of “women’s rights” is, in fact, an issue of human rights that affects men equally.
“I’ve seen young men suffering from mental illness, unable to ask for help for fear it would make them less of a man…I’ve seen men made fragile and insecure by a distorted sense of what constitutes male success.”
On hearing her words, I couldn’t help but be reminded of my great-grandfather, who suffered his whole life because his pain was considered an un-manly weakness, rather than the natural consequence of sending a young man to kill in the name of his government.
They made me think of how his pain must have affected my grandmother, in turn affecting her children, and in turn affecting my brother and me. It is a pain that echoes down through generations, simply because society told him that as a man, he couldn’t seek help.
Something’s got to give, people. Because if I have sons, I don’t want them to grow up in a world where they’re called weak for seeking help, any more than I want daughters growing up in a world where they’re told they can’t be strong. We have to speak up. We have to make a change, for our children, and our children’s children.
If not now, then when?