Posted Sept 29, 2010

Soldiers who need mental health care the most are the least likely to seek treatment.

That’s the conclusion of a 350-page Army report released this summer titled “Health Promotion, Risk Reduction and Suicide Prevention.”

The report says little has changed in soldiers’ perceptions that their peers would look down on them for seeing a mental health professional. A study referenced in the report shows that soldiers are only slightly less embarrassed about seeking mental health treatment today than they were in 2005.

“Stigma continues to be the biggest deterrent to seeking help,” the report says.

Despite assurances otherwise from Army leadership, soldiers still worry that a visit to a mental health clinic could hurt their careers.

Col. Chris Philbrick, director of the task force that did the study, said the Army is working hard to change that mindset.

“I think the Army has come to articulate individuals who seek help are to be commended, not stigmatized,” Philbrick said.

But when it comes to stigma, the Army finds itself in a paradox. Soldiers, by the nature of their work, need to be tough. It’s right there in the Soldier’s Creed:

“I will always place the mission first.

I will never accept defeat.

I will never quit.

I will never leave a fallen comrade.

I am disciplined, physically and mentally tough, trained and proficient in my warrior tasks and drills. I always maintain my arms, my equipment and myself.”

Admitting that an emotional or mental burden is overwhelming can seem like quitting or accepting defeat.

Spc. Andrew Falusi, an 82nd Airborne Division paratrooper, had his second deployment to Afghanistan cut short in December when a homemade bomb exploded under his Humvee. Falusi has a scar on his kneecap, and the mental stress remains heavy. He has four years left in the Army, but he doesn’t want to deploy again. He’s not sure how much longer his luck will hold out, rolling around in countries where people aim to kill him.

Falusi has seen mental health counselors during his rehabilitation, something he never would have done before.

“I thought mental health was kind of a joke,” Falusi said. “You don’t want to look like the weak one.”

But the counseling has helped, he said, and it has changed his attitude.

Most young soldiers are still resistant, he said.

“Their attitude now is they don’t really want to go,” he said. “They’re more told to go.”

Leaders are more accepting of psychological issues now, he said, and more likely to recommend counseling for men and women under their charge.

But soldiers still don’t want to admit they have a problem.

One of the ways the Army is trying to fight the stigma problem is by placing behavioral health providers in primary care clinics. Soldiers are more likely to go to a doctor for a physical ailment.

While they’re at the doctor’s office, they can be screened for behavioral health problems.

Army Maj. Gen. Mark Graham began speaking out about mental health and suicide awareness after his son, Kevin, took his own life while suffering from depression.

“We have a culture of, ‘Suck it up, be tough,’ and frankly, you want your soldiers to be tough,” Graham said. “We also need to recognize we need to have compassion. It’s a tough balance.”

Staff writer John Ramsey can be reached at [email protected] or 486-3574.


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Copyright © 2010, The Fayetteville Observer, N.C.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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