One of the most insidious and commonly repeated tropes about mental illness is that people can bootstrap their way out of it; they just need to ‘try harder’ and ‘stop moaning’ and they’ll magically get better, even if this defies all known knowledge of neurochemistry, human emotion, and psychiatry. There’s tremendous pressure on people with mental illness to ‘snap out of it’ and a common belief that we will do so if we want to…so obviously, if we’re still mentally ill, we don’t want to get better.
The military has been struggling for some time with a growing suicide rate among veterans and soldiers, along with general mental health problems in the military community. Stress of participating in extended military conflict tends to put people at risk of, or exacerbate, mental health conditions. While aware of this, the military hasn’t figured out an effective way to deal with it. Perhaps because the most effective way to deal with it is to take soldiers out of combat, which isn’t being presented as a viable option.
Trying to find a way to address the rising rates of mental health problems, and the negative public associations that come along with it, the military has cast about for a variety of solutions. The latest is a real doozy. Welcome the Comprehensive Soldier Fitness Programme, which aims to change everything for military mental health both by assessing soldiers more fully when they join the military and providing them with discussions about mental health issues as part of their training.
In theory, this might seem like a good idea, but of course the execution is something very, very different. It’s boostrapping supreme, as the poster child of the programme illustrates, and before we go on, be advised that this article, and what I am about to quote, have a strong content warning for rape.
Brig. Gen. Rhonda Cornum found out what combat stress was in the back of a pickup during the first Gulf War in 1991 when one of her Iraqi captors unzipped her flight suit and, as she lay there with two broken arms and an injured eye, sexually assaulted her.
The reed-thin Army physician, whose Black Hawk helicopter had been shot down, became a symbol of everything America was worried about in sending women to war. Her successful return home — sane and not that much the worse for her ordeal — became a powerful argument for the irrelevance of gender in conditions of indiscriminate violence.
…The most important of them she learned as a prisoner, she said, “is Put It in Perspective: PIP” — understanding that although a situation might be bad, it could be worse.
She argues that her ability to survive the experience was the result of preexisting ‘mental strength,’ effectively, and the military seems to agree, pointing out that 80% of soldiers weather combat well, suggesting that the remaining 20% must just have flawed personalities or something, apparently. Brig. Gen. Cornum is traveling through the military as part of the program, providing instruction and mentoring to soldiers, but it’s raising, for me, rather a lot of questions. Like whether it’s really an awesome thing to have a rape victim telling people to put it in perspective, given the huge number of sexual assaults in the military, and the fact that some of the women she may be talking to are probably also rape victims, who may not have returned from it as successfully as she did.
There’s something deeply upsetting about women who are put forward as role models because of ‘strength’ when ‘strength’ involves responding to something like rape in a socially approved way. Her story is about how tough she is, how resilient she is, how she’s bounced back, and how you can too, unless you’re a total weakling. Other women in the military also have more complex, less cut and dried, situations when it comes to their rapes; because they are being raped by fellow soldiers, by officers, they are being raped in nebulous and difficult situations. They are being denied abortion services and told they’re lying and being reminded that they could ruin careers by speaking out. They are not brave captives who survived an ordeal: They are trying to survive an ordeal right now.
Because what’s being implied by this and other aspects of the programme is that normal reactions to trauma are actually signs of weakness and something wrong with you. It argues that many people come back from war ‘mentally stronger,’ as though the experience of war is somehow personally improving, except for those pesky people who don’t react as expected. The military seems to be convinced that it’s possible to teach people how to react to trauma more ‘competently,’ rather than addressing the root causes of that trauma and maybe getting some action done in that area, and it’s embarked on an extremely ambitious project to do just that.
A project that has some psychology professionals worried, because it’s also a very large and potentially very dangerous experiment. Psychological experiments in the civilian world require institutional review board approval and careful monitoring, but that’s not the case here; APA endorsement or not, this is an experiment on a very large scale, and these are real human lives. If the Comprehensive Soldier Fitness Programme helps people deal with trauma more effectively, that will be fantastic…
…but will it? Or will it only shame people who don’t approach trauma in approved ways, and who have difficulty reintegrating after military service? Will it be a reminder to people already struggling that they are weak, failures, useless? This programme is about ‘toughening up’ and bootstrapping your way out, not about examining how and why it is that soldiers are under such immense psychological stress.
The military is tasked with obeying the commander in chief, which means that it sends troops where the President says to send them. Those troops are facing harsh conditions in a protracted war, and know that they may not come home to much; Congress threatens to stop their pay while slashing benefits for veterans, partners are using food stamps to survive because their allowance from the military is not enough, and Arlington’s records are so hopelessly tangled that it’s hard to tell who is in which grave, at this point. It’s pretty hard to see how people are supposed to toughen up and bootstrap their way out of these conditions.