My unit, Alpha Co. 1/4 at the end of a month of intense fighting in Najaf, Iraq. Emotions took over.

5 Myths That Create Obstacles to Healing Invisible Wounds

In order to heal the invisible wounds of war, we need to address them and provide proper care. But first, we need to overcome these 5 obstacles that prevent service members from seeking help.

As a young Marine serving in Iraq, I made a devastating mistake one night and accidentally shot a fellow Marine. My team was trapped on the roof of a burning building under withering gunfire and surrounded by enemy insurgents. Amidst the chaos, I had forgotten to mount my night vision scope and I fired into a group that was moving down an alleyway towards our position. They turned out to be Marines coming to re-enforce us. After that incident, I was crushed with guilt and shame but was worried that if I spoke about it I would be held back from joining my unit when it was time to fight again.

Instead, I struggled with that burden for nearly 6 years and even contemplated suicide before finally seeking counseling. I believe we need to fight harder to eliminate the myths and stigmas that surround seeking treatment for invisible wounds. Perhaps if we begin to step forward and address the stigma of invisible wounds, we will see a reduction in the long-term effects of PTS.

Here are 5 myths that create obstacles to healing invisible wounds:

Myth #1: Seeking help is weakness

Perhaps the biggest reason that people fail to seek help for invisible wounds is because they don’t want to be seen as weak amongst their peers. While many within the military community and beyond seek to eliminate the stigma surrounding seeking help or treatment for depression, PTS and TBI, the efforts are far from solving the core problem. Often times, military personnel of all ranks feel that they will be seen as weak, lose security clearances or even be pulled away from their unit. However, military commanders are finally taking a stand to ensure that those who need help are not afraid to seek it.

In April of 2016, General Votel, the commnader of US Special Operations Command, made it clear that he wishes to eliminate the stigma and even acknowledged that he has sought counseling himself. In a statement to CNN, he noted “The injuries that our people deal with aren’t always physical ones,” said Votel. “These are hard-charging people. They suppress stuff and it comes out later, and so we have to have the capability to take care of that.” This type of “I’ve been there too and it’s okay” leadership style is exactly what needs to take place more often within the military, so that those returning home from multiple deployments and traumatic events will not feel afraid or ashamed to begin seeking mental health care.

Myth #2: Therapists who haven’t served in combat “can’t possibly understand

When I first left the military, I felt that it was useless to talk to civilian mental health professionals who had never experienced war. I believed it was impossible for counselors or therapists comprehend war if they had never been there, regardless of how many fancy diplomas were hanging on their walls. When I finally did begin attending regular counseling, I found that I was incorrect and that many of those people turned down higher paying jobs specifically because they had a strong desire to work with veterans.

The psychology and science behind trauma does not require require that a therapist experience traumatic events during war in order to treat them in others. Everyone will experience some form of traumatic event at some point in life and the therapies for treating PTS and TBI are largely the same regardless of whether they were sustained during combat or not. So, while it’s easy to say “this person will never understand me because they haven’t walked a mile in my shoes”, it’s much more effective to sit down, talk, and trust that these trained professionals know what they are doing and want to help.

Myth #3: The symptoms of depression and PTS simply “go away” over time

When leaving the military, most people are simply focused on transition, job search and celebrating the end of their service. As a result, it’s easy for depression and other symptoms of invisible wounds to sneak up on people. Even when symptoms do become noticeable, the large majority of veterans believe that they will just go away with time. However, sticking with the “suck it up and drive on” mindset and ignoring your body’s inner signals can lead to complications.

The truth is that the longer you wait, the more depression will slowly creep in and prevent you from taking action. You can’t solve these problems alone or with alcohol or adrenaline pumping activities; trust me, I tried. These problems will not just go away either and if you are suffering from guilt, shame, anxiety, depression, TBI or other invisible wounds, they require professional treatment and resources. Don’t be afraid. Be proactive. Seek the help you need and you’ll respect yourself for it.

Myth #4: Others will look down on me for seeking help

Seeking help for invisible wounds is not a sign of weakness at all; in fact, it is a sign of incredible courage and strength. First of all, nobody will look down on you or embarrass you for seeking help. Secondly, it takes immense courage to admit a problem and take the necessary steps towards a long-term solution. As veterans, our warrior culture doesn’t usually allow us to say “I need help” but in this case, that is exactly what we need to do.

The most important factor in my decision to seek help was a fellow Marine who had the courage to tell me that he knew what I was going through and talked to me about his experiences with counseling and therapy. Without him having the courage to tell me about his personal struggles, I’m not sure that I would have felt it was okay to go. I felt like needed permission from someone that I admired and respected to seek help. If you’re in a similar situation, I’m not afraid to say that seeking help was the most important and productive thing that I have done in my entire adult life.

Myth #5: PTS or TBI will keep me from getting the job I want

When I first got out of the military, perhaps the biggest reason why I refused to seek treatment even after it became apparent that there was a problem was because I didn’t want to limit my career options. I wanted to work for federal law enforcement or perhaps go back overseas again and I thought that anything on my record would limit my employment eligibility. However, under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) this would actually be illegal. According to the ADA, “… it is illegal for an employer to refuse to hire a veteran because he has PTSD, because he was previously diagnosed with PTSD, or because the employer assumes he has PTSD. The ADA also limits the medical information employers may obtain and prohibits disability-based harass­ment and retaliation.

Regardless, mental health should come first. These symptoms do not go away on their own and it is up to you to take responsibility to seek the care, resources and treatment that you need. Focus on fixing what needs fixed first and everything else will fall in line after.

If you’re struggling, I’ve been there and I understand. Reach out and I will talk with you, provide resources and just listen. Nobody can do transition alone.

Infographic from the George W. Bush Center: http://www.bushcenter.org/publications/resources-reports/reports/invisible-wounds.html
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