Suicidal Soldiers: The Armed Forces' Stigmatization of the Mentally Ill
In the wake of the tragedy at Fort Hood, it seems necessary to address the issue of mental health or ill health in the military. Back in July of this year, I read a brief editorial in USA Today that stunned me regarding the rates of both suicide and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. In 2008, there were 143 suicides reported by the Army, the highest rate since such records have been kept. As of this writing, November 8, 2009, there have been 113 suicides and more are suspected to be later identified as suicide as investigations conclude. PTSD diagnoses have climbed to 34,000 individuals.
The very fact that Major Nidal Malik Hasan, the alleged mass murderer who remains on life support, is himself an Army psychiatrist, brings into question both the quality and quantity of mental health workings within the military itself. Mental health professionals in both Iraq and Afghanistan are woefully stressed with caseloads that are staggering. The New York Times reports that of 553,000 troops worldwide, there are currently only 408 psychiatrists available. These inadequacies are not a new phenomenon; in 2005, one Army psychologist based in Germany was the only mental health professional available for 10,000 troops.
A Civilian's View
The outcome of warfare has always been of the utmost importance to warriors, history shows that 'winning' wars is considered the true prize. Unfortunately, individuals become lost within such a paradigm, the objective of the war is foremost. When soldiers exhibit unusual or strange behaviors in the military, they are dealt with in various, conventional ways. Often considered men or women trying to avoid duty, the mentally unstable have encountered severe stigma, most notably in the Army. The means are not considered as important as the end. It's that simple.
Of course this is the view of a civilian. My father was a Naval officer during WWII, and I was born after his retirement. My love of this country and its tenets is certain, and I offer these thoughts from the point of view of an educated social scientist. Stigmatization has always been an effective tool for isolating unwanted individuals, whether suicidal or simply considered 'odd.'
I offer no apology for Hasan, his crimes are unthinkable. My heart here is with the families of those lost to this massacre, to those still suffering his violence, and to those still waging war. The life of a soldier is one unknown to most of us, an existence I find unimaginable. When in the midst of a campaign, the men and women faced with impossible situations seem to find themselves punished by some of the men or women who command them.
Nothing illustrates this military insensitivity more clearly than the use of orange road guard vests on soldiers assessed to be suicidal. Elspeth Reeve, in an article for The Daily Beast, managed to uncover this Army 'tradition' with frightening clarity. General Pete Chiarelli, Vice Chief of Staff, U.S.Army, responded to Reeve's findings within a week by banning the use of these vests for such identification purposes. While the Army's logic was not without some reason; the vests called attention to those in need, they were meant to be 'helpful,' etc., in the end, the stigmatization of these soldiers was an Army example of cruel labeling, intended, it seemed, to humiliate.
To read her entire article, please check out:
The Breaking Point
While success is the aim of battle, why then do those in command neglect and abuse their own? Battles can only be won if commanders as well as the troops they command work together for a common purpose. The impact of mental illness is increasing tenfold given our global involvements. While Major Hasan was facing his first deployment, others return over and over again with varying results. Individual reactions to wartime are due in part to the personality enlisted. Clearly the statistics point to a huge discrepancy between the mental health professionals and those that are in dire need of their services. The events at Fort Hood show just how out of touch the system can be.
Update: September 30, 2010
There were 4 suicides at Fort Hood over the weekend which will hopefully lead to an all-encompassing investigation on the military base. These suicides must be stopped.