In a move indicative of better understanding concerning mental problems, Army reserve General Blackledge is defying the military’s culture of silence regarding mental health problems. This is welcome news. From the article:
Blackledge got psychiatric counseling to deal with wartime trauma, and now he is defying the military’s culture of silence on the subject of mental health problems and treatment.
“It’s part of our profession … nobody wants to admit that they’ve got a weakness in this area,” Blackledge said of mental health problems among troops returning from America’s two wars.
Officials across the service branches have taken steps over the last year to make getting help easier and more discreet, such as embedding mental health teams into units.
They see signs that stigma has been slowly easing. But it’s likely a change that will take generations.
Last year, 29 percent of troops with symptoms said they feared seeking help would hurt their careers, down from 34 percent the previous year, according to an Army survey. Nearly half feared they’d be seen as weak, down from 53 percent.
The majority of troops who get help are able to get better and to remain on the job.
I suspect that part of the problem with people admitting that they need help has to do with the deep seated idea of dualism we have in our culture. If the soul is independent of the body, the thinking may be, one should be able to remain emotionally fit and strong regardless of circumstances. One’s identity and character does not change. This is fundamental to many religious ideas since the soul, independent of the body, is what “goes home” to heaven and reaps the rewards for whatever behavior or belief a particular religious system prescribes. This runs counter to all we have learned about the brain. Our personal identity and trains are deeply rooted in the brain, as dramatically observed in the extreme example of Phineas Gage. If for example, a soldier is shot, he or she obviously sees a doctor. Likewise, the experiences one goes through causes state changes in the brain (or mind, if you will) and these changes are also physical (physical in the sense of changing neurological states). So there should be no shame at all in seeking help to remedy to mitigate undesired changes, for example waking up from nightmares in a cold sweat as Gen. Blackledge had experienced.
On my long commutes home, I’ve had the occasional amusement of listening to right wingers such as Michael Savage decry psychiatry and the use of various drugs to help with mental problems. He continually refers to people simply needing more (to paraphrase here; it’s been a while since I’ve heard this) “strength of character”. One’s character is based upon the physical brain, and as such, is subject to physical changes from physical damage, illness, stress, and other environmental factors. As such, this complex organ is subject to being treated, like any other organ. Treatment may take the form of operations, drugs, or even retraining the brain (changing the brain map). It probably is true that drugs such as Prozac are over prescribed, but that does not mean they can not be useful in some circumstances. Everybody does get the blues now and then, so one does need to be careful in correct diagnosis. People like Savage seem to derive their ideas from the dualistic perspective of mind (or soul) and body. This is a perspective bolstered by an irrational and outdated religious point of view. This point of view is no longer useful and may even hinder people from seeking the treatment that they need. It just one more indication that religion has outlived its usefulness and that we should seek to base our society on general humanistic principles informed by science.
One question someone inevitably raises is about the contributions of society from people suffering from possible mental problems. Would we have “The Raven” if Edgar Allen Poe had not been an opium addict, etc.? If he had been treated and never wrote “The Raven”, we would never have known it was missing. Perhaps, with his talent, he would have come up with something equally as good and memorable. At least, in all probability, he could have had a better life.
Allowing all the opportunity for happiness, without dogma’s stigma blocking the path, will lead to a better society.