“Mrs. Johnson, you’re just stressed. Here, why don’t you take my class? It will teach you how to change your thinking so you’ll no longer suffer from what you think is anxiety, and learn to relax!”
I was sent over to the Mental Health office on base by my Primary Care Provider (also on base) to talk about how I was feeling. My PCM at the time was a nice older Lt. Colonel, who, while concerned, genuinely had no idea what to do for me. I had been at our new station for over a year, and I was REALLY struggling with anxiety, depression, and darker thoughts. I hadn’t made a lot of friends yet, so I felt really alone AND I was expected to juggle all of my kids’ and spouse’s needs along with my own work and school. The adjustment was harder than expected, and I had reached out for help, exactly like I was supposed to. Since my PCM didn’t feel comfortable prescribing me medication at that time, he followed protocol and sent me to talk to someone.
Unfortunately, after only letting me speak for maybe a minute, this “provider” cut me off and told me I needed to take her class and suck it up. No referrals out for further help, no future appointments. I was left to the wolves, to fend for myself without any idea of where to go or what to do next.
I left her office in tears. I felt gaslighted – and more alone than ever. In fact, I felt even worse coming out of her office than when I walked in.
After the tears had passed, my eyes were open. I was angry. Not just at the provider herself, but for how many people she likely said this same thing to – and how many of them came out of her office feeling even worse than me. I told my husband, who luckily had the sense to relay the information to his leadership. This step led to the departure of said mental health provider. I probably saved a lot of lives that day – but she was only one provider. My experience forced me to ask an important question: Was this the general attitude towards mental health in the military? How many more providers are just dismissing the concerns and feelings of servicemembers and their families?
Unfortunately, what I have found is that the stigma surrounding mental health has been deeply rooted in military culture.
While the military provides world-class training on how to fight in a war, they have had no idea what to do when servicemembers return home with mental scars leftover from the traumatic things they saw and did overseas.
Soldiers, sailors, Marines, and airmen who have sought help in the past have been kicked out because there were no resources to help them in the service, and they would need long-term care. Because of this, unfortunately it is common for servicemembers to keep quiet when they are having trouble for fear of messing up, or even losing, their careers. So, they bottle up their emotions and continue business-as-usual at work, and go home to their families, who (sometimes) bear the brunt of those feelings. Suicide numbers also continue to climb year and after. Suffice it to say, “take some ibuprofen and put a band-aid on it” just doesn’t cut it when it comes to mental health.
To make matters worse, this laissez faire attitude toward mental health also seems to be affecting the care of military spouses and their families. Spouses and children often have no choice but to see providers on base. In an ideal world, military PCMs will provide optimal care that encompasses the needs of each patient. That includes all necessary referrals, access to resources, and access to medication in the event of a need – right? Not always. Unfortunately, military doctors don’t seem to be well-versed in mental health care, and so they refer us over to the mental health office for evaluation. That office is supposed to connect us to further resources to assist us depending on our individual needs. In my own case, I wasn’t helped at all. I was left to my own devices, which could have been dangerous had I been in a worse mindset. I needed comprehensive care, and (something I didn’t know until later) – a diagnosis. Luckily, I was able to get in touch with a wonderful therapist, so my story has a happ(ier) ending.
The military’s attitude toward mental health is also being challenged on multiple fronts – peer-reviewed studies, advocates who are speaking out, etc – which means that we could see some changes in how both the member and their families are treated in the near future. However, there are still many others who struggle and don’t know where to turn, and they can’t necessarily wait for these changes to go into effect. Everyday, we send the brave men and women of this country with the all-important fight for our freedoms overseas, while their families hold down the fort at home. Taking care of their families is just as vital to the mission, and the military needs to step up and honor its promise to care for members – and their families – when it comes to all things, ESPECIALLY their mental health. What happened to me was dangerous – and I hope to prevent it from happening to another in my community, whether they be active duty, a spouse, a retiree, or a child. If you had a similar experience as I did, or just need some advice on where to go to receive care check out “How to Seek Mental Health Services for Military Families.” And don’t be afraid to SPEAK UP. Your mental health matters just as much as your physical health.