Do We have a Mental Health Crisis?

I have recently watched an email thread among my West Point classmates discussing the suicide epidemic among veterans, particularly combat vets.  Why do so many people appear to have mental impairments? Moreover, why do current conditions seem to push so many to a despondency so deep that suicide looks like a viable alternative to living with their inner demons?

Mental illness is not just a problem for the military, it seems to permeate our society at large. One might genuinely question whether we are facing something new, or are we now simply more aware of the problem (they have come out of the shadows)?

Believing that there is a problem with “outliers” assumes there is a state we can define as “normal,” a common “average” set of behaviors that is typical. I would argue that we all have some degree of “imbalance.” I don’t believe that anyone I know is “normal.”

Please do not misunderstand my point.  I am not arguing that mental disorders are not real, rather that they are not a new phenomenon. These have been around forever; it is just that today we take more notice. This may be because we have advanced science and our understanding of the workings of the brain. However, I also feel that we have created a monstrous new notion of what a “normal” society is. Against this backdrop, even the typical abnormality appears very stark.

In this I find an interesting irony, those who espouse diversity are some of the least tolerant people.  Their ideal is based on acceptance of diversity, yet they seem unable to tolerate people or behavior that falls outside their own narrowly defined parameters of acceptable thought and conduct. Rather than accepting diversity of personality, they seem to want to compress everyone into similitude. Anything other than conformance is aberrant…and must be corrected. Therefore, we must have a disorder to diagnose and cure (very often through medication).

The military mindset did, and to some degree still does, view mental health problems as an issue of moral weakness, to be solved by toughening up the service member. In the past, “Shell Shock” was a stigma. I believe that even today, in an era where we understand PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) much better, there is still a bias against seeking mental health care.

It seems eminently reasonable that the multiple stresses of military service and war can exacerbate or even initiate mental health issues. Our combat veterans cannot “un-see” or “undo” the experiences they had, yet we seem incapable of truly understanding how issues emerge once they have returned home and are back amongst us.

The reasons to me is clear and well-articulated in war correspondent Sebastian Junker’s two seminal books, “War” and “Tribe.”  Soldiers come “home” from deployments where life was distilled to its simplest form.  Each soldier is a member of a team from which he derives purpose.  Whether he is the best shot or simply a horse that can carry an enormous load, he is critical to the health and well-being of the group.  Those simple relationships give meaning to their actions, to their very lives. They exist in a world of unlimited liability, a place in which unthinking and absolute devotion to the collective whole is the norm.

But what happens when they return?  When they leave the Tribe?  From whence does their purpose arise.  Which corporation is going to create such linkage? Will his friends in the old neighborhood be willing to lay down their lives for him?  Or he for them?  It is understandable how such alienation can lead to mental problems.  If the memories are too much and there are no brothers on whom to call, where do they turn to gain purpose? An existentialist might question why a purposeless life is even worth living.

There is no Tribe. We have long since abandoned this quaint notion in “modern” culture. In fact, the social contracts of reciprocal responsibilities that once existed between business and employee, and government and the citizen have eroded. Employees are largely expendable in a global economy where quarterly profits drive operations. The government is so large and bureaucratic that we simply view it as a place to get handouts, be they tax breaks for businesses or entitlements to the populous. No one today would query as JFK once did: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”

I believe that the concept of Tribe (or lack thereof) is a root cause of much of the ill we see in society today.  How many violent school incidents derive from those who feel alienated?  The retreat from human contact into on-line gaming and social media exacerbates the problem.

In this respect, I think our region may be better off than most. There is still a semblance of connection in a small town like Kingsport. There are close family ties and many community organizations from kids’ sports to Rotary, that still hold interpersonal bonds together. We call it the “Kingsport Spirit.” Perhaps our attempts to “grow,” to be more like the big cities is really a dangerous path. There are also detrimental components in the growth that we seek, yet we seem to only see the rosy parts.

In the end, I believe that we must accept that we are all a bit “abnormal.” In fact, I would have us rejoice in that condition. However, we must be cognizant of the exacerbating conditions that push those on the edge too far. Above all else, we must embrace the notion that mental health isn’t a choice, it is a medical condition. No one decides to be depressed in the same sense that no one decides to have cancer. It simply happens.

We should have the same compassion for those that are mentally afflicted and those that are physically sick.

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1 Response

  1. Dave, another gem! I would like to comment on two of its facets.

    I have been lucky enough to encounter a few people with exceptional experience and insight into the veteran suicide problem. Dr Shauna Springer is a Harvard educated psychologist and has extensive clinical experience with suicidal vets. Dr Springer echoes your excellent insights concerning the “Tribe”. She takes it a bit further by observing that the military trains soldiers to eliminate threats, to deal with problems decisively. When a PTS stricken vet comes to the realization that HE is the problem that is dragging down his family and friends then suicide is a sure way to eliminate the problem. I must confess to being taken aback by her assertion, but the more I think about it the more dispositive her assertion becomes.

    Recently I asked Dr. Lipov, another expert on PTS, what accounted for the increasing rate of suicide in our society, especially among younger people. Of course, there are many factors / theories about it, but he pins at least some of the blame on an outsized reliance on antidepressant medications (which actually increase suicidal ideation among younger people) as well as industrial scale agriculture. Simply too many chemicals / drugs / toxins in the food we eat.