Lessons from the US Military

Purpose
added by Craig Steel
Woman sitting at a long table working on her laptop

The United States Department of Veterans Affairs recently announced 18 veterans are taking their lives each day on their return from active service. While this terribly sad scenario must be of the utmost concern to all families of those recently returned or yet to do so (and of course the US Military and Government), what can a nation learn from this experience beyond the stark reminder of the enormous and often unforeseen cost of military intervention?

PTSD or ‘Post Traumatic Stress Disorder’ is cited as the most likely cause of military suicide given their personnel’s exposure to horrific acts of terrorism and war; however this debilitating anxiety disorder, which can occur at any age, can also be triggered by exposure to seemingly less traumatic experiences such as domestic abuse or natural disasters such as the Christchurch earthquake.

While much is known about PTSD, and research into ways to both prevent it and treat it is on-going, there is another dimension the broader population may wish to consider as it is relevant to us all and especially our young, hence the reason for this newsletter.


Purpose

One of the challenges service personnel returning from active duties are likely to experience and ultimately suffer from is a sudden loss of purpose (in addition to the known psychological symptoms associated with PTSD that can include the ‘reliving’ of past trauma or events, ‘avoidance’ or emotional numbing or and/or erratic and unexpected ‘arousal’ levels that can cause exaggerated reactions to everyday experiences as well as inhibiting concentration, engagement and sleep).

When dispatched for a particular tour, military personnel are clear about their purpose. They know why they are being deployed and what is expected of them. However upon their return, there is likely to be an unnerving absence of purpose other than reintegration. In other words, while they are on duty, they are there to do a job and as a result of the importance of their mission, they are trained to respond to orders to ensure they are not only in a position to complete their tasks, but maintain their very survival. However upon returning home there may not be a purpose other than to try and move on with their lives - which regrettably some feel incapable of doing when they discover they are ‘on their own’.

What relevance this has to the civilian population in this country may be debatable however as we have one of the highest youth suicide rates in the world, which may on the face of it pale into insignificance if compared to the plight of the US Military, the causes of such devastating behaviour are not entirely dissimilar even though the trauma may have originated from a different source.

 

A New Zealand Institute report on suicide in 2010 indicates New Zealand teenagers are more likely to take their own life than teenagers from any other OECD nation. While research into the causes of youth suicide are not entirely conclusive, they paint an alarming picture of our children’s inability to overcome everyday challenges as well as highlighting the degree of helplessness and low self-esteem (a consequence of low levels of self-worth) many are experiencing. For this reason I am interested in encouraging all people to consider why this may be so (and indeed why a person may entertain the idea of taking their life) and what could be done to improve their predicament.

 

If we were to further the discussion on purpose, we could understand why so many feel their life has become meaningless and therefore no longer worth living. Sadly in our fast paced fame-obsessed society we don’t have to look far to realise how many of our own are not only failing to be engaged by society, but are actively disengaging from society in order to lessen the trauma they are experiencing - often caused by their looming sense of inadequacy and irrelevance when comparing their life with society’s ‘apparent’ albeit inaccurate and irrational view of success - hence the reason I suggest people choose to view their success as a measure of their contribution to society (or humanity or other) rather than using the evidence of what they gain or accumulate as what matters. If a youngster, or any person for that matter, has sufficient time on their hands, they are likely to give thought as to what life is about. Unless there is a demand on them that satisfies their concern or preferably, a role they can fulfil which they regard as worthwhile, they are likely to conclude that they are indeed irrelevant. For a youngster with no sense of purpose or commitment to society, it is little wonder they question what ‘it’ is all about; which in many instances precipitates an internal dialogue as to ‘how to get recognised’ (which may result in a very positive response although it can also lead to inappropriate or unsavoury behaviour) or conversely, it can pre-empt a more worrying rumination of ‘how can I end the trauma’. While such discussion carries risks, it is important people think about why they are here in order to create a life worth living; beyond the scope of self-entertainment and/or endeavouring to satisfy others i.e. the idea of exploring our existence is appropriate however the questions we ask, and thus what we conclude, can lead to vastly different outcomes.

If we were to follow this premise further, it is easy to see why nations under stress or at war (as history has shown) have been able to galvanise their population including many of their disaffected youth because suddenly there is a job for them to do. Suddenly they can be involved in a pursuit that has relevance and meaning thereby allowing them to be recognised for their contribution and thus their existence. It should be noted however that in the absence of war or a prolonged national crisis all we tend to do in a modern and stable nation like New Zealand is send our children off to school in the hope they will not only learn something useful, but identify a pathway that could make use of their skills rather than enabling them to understand how to contribute to something that is relevant to all. If we want to curb the alternative i.e. prevent people from assuming the only option is to opt out, we need to not only understand how to engage them in a deeper conversation so they can be supported if required, but enable them to appreciate the importance of their life not just to themselves but to humanity as a whole (the caveat being that our life is not ‘more’ important than others, but ‘equal’ to all others).

If life appears to have little meaning, it may over time appear pointless. If life becomes pointless, what is the point in living? It is an easy progression any perfectly normal and otherwise healthy person may make and indeed needs to process in order to experience a life that has meaning. If we as a society took it upon ourselves to engage in meaningful conversation with those we interact with, as early as we can, I believe we would not only turn the tide on teen suicide, we would address much of our anxiety and depression (that said, I have found chronic depression is primarily a consequence of childhood trauma), and as a result become an infinitely healthier and indeed prosperous nation. The fact of the matter is, when people take their lives, they tend to believe that no one cares (despite that rarely being true) however the reason they may come to that conclusion is often the result of insufficient conversation about their relevance and/or potential from those they rely on for learning (that said, some take their lives in order to punish those they believe should have protected them or to get back at them for failing them).

 

If you believe there is wisdom engaging those you can in a deeper and more deliberate conversation about their purpose, not necessarily because of the risk of what they might do if you don’t, but because you may initiate a more interesting or valuable response, the following may offer you an entry.

 

Broaching the subject is, according to many, often the hardest part. The reason for this is usually because we don’t want to sound alarmist because of our fear of either precipitating a more worrying thought (mind-set) or finding ourselves in a situation where we suddenly feel out of our depth. However in truth I have found when people engage others (their children, friends or colleagues) in this discussion, they tend to demonstrate genuine interest and/or concern, thereby off-setting the need for topical expertise. In other words if you were to engage your children or a colleague you believed needed guidance, the fact that you have would suggest to them that you care, thereby allowing you to navigate your way in an entirely acceptable sense. Choosing not to engage, when we know or suspect something is wrong, implies we don’t care, even though it is more likely to be our fear of ‘managing’ the process and therefore the outcome that prevents us from doing so.

For this reason finding an entry point is important and could be as simple as;

  • ‘If there was one thing you could do/or change, what would it be and why would you do it/change it?’
  • Another might be ‘what would you ultimately like to do with your life if you had the choice?'
  • Or ‘what do you most like to do and why do you like it?’
  • Or ‘what do you believe you are best at, and why do you believe that is?’
  • Or ‘what’s important to you or do you most believe in?’

In other words, the entry can be subtle. It doesn’t need to be dramatic. It needs to be sincere but it needn’t be or appear reactive. The reason for this is because the approach you take will more than likely cause the person you are talking with to gauge your view of their state and/or their ability to deal with the issues they are facing, not just consider how best to answer the question you are posing. If we appear worried, we will inadvertently suggest that we have little faith in their ability to address their problems thereby compounding the issue by validating their assumption (regarding their own mind-set). If however we adopt a different stance that not only says ‘we care about you/you are important to us’ but also ‘that we have confidence in you and your ability to own or self-correct’, they will more than likely be reminded of the fact that they could improve their experience; even if they require support.

 

If you have concerns regarding the mental health of a loved one or colleague, we recommend you seek professional assistance via your (or their) GP. Other information can be obtained via the Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand website www.mentalhealth.org.nz

 

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