Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, is a disorder that’s been in the news a lot lately, and there are many wonderful organizations that have sprung up to help sufferers cope with their everyday lives in the wake of their personal experiences. Despite this, a stigma still exists surrounding the diagnosis, particularly among military men. While PTSD is not exclusive to military members, affecting first responders and others completely outside of these fields, for the purposes of this article, I’d like to focus on military men. Their experiences with PTSD, social gender expectations of men, and the environment in which they work makes this group particularly unique.
I was a military spouse for 15 years, and saw a lot of military men suffer physical and mental trauma not only abroad, but also in the field at home, in training. What the general public may not understand is that even in the field, military undergoing training are also subjected to accidents and death caused by malfunctioning equipment, weather conditions, unstable terrain, medical emergencies, and vehicular accidents. When I first married into the military, PTSD was rarely, if ever, discussed in our circles. Now, on top of hearing the incredible stories of survivors who are now living with the disorder, I am also hearing a lot of judgment and criticism from the general public. I’m also seeing and hearing about those who are most likely living with the disorder that won’t report it.
One of the reasons that it’s under-reported by male military personnel is that everyone has different ways of dealing with the grief and shock that goes along with it. PTSD is characterized by a variety of symptoms that follow a traumatic experience, but which don’t resolve themselves after a period of weeks or months. Flashbacks and nightmares are some of the most commonly recognized features of the disorder. Some suffer from depression, survivor’s guilt, sleep disorders, anxiety, and difficulty returning to their normal lives, to name a few.
According to research, men who’ve been in combat are more likely to have experienced traumatic events than women, yet service women are more often diagnosed with PTSD. One of the reasons for this is that men may exhibit different symptoms of PTSD than women, being more likely to turn to drugs or alcohol, and they are more likely to exhibit behavioral problems than women such as irritability and aggression. One study of U.S. military troops returning from war found that half of those suffering from PTSD don’t seek treatment, and many who do, don’t follow through on that treatment.
Some of the problems facing military men who are hesitant to report their symptoms include some pretty complex factors. Some feel that they are expected to be the stereotypical male that’s strong and resilient. Our perception of the typical male soldier is that of the hero, someone who has served their country in active duty, put their lives at risk, done what most people wouldn’t. There is an expectation of strength and fortitude of these men. This is an expectation that some feel they must live up to. Some are afraid that reporting symptoms will threaten or end their military career, chances of promotion, or prevent them from being deployed again.
Some are afraid of the stigma that’s attached to men who come forward, as PTSD is not always clearly understood by family members, friends, and the general community, and they fear the judgment and criticism that may follow from those who don’t understand. Others may be the main breadwinner in the family, and fear the loss of their income. Some don’t want to let their Unit down, or feel that they owe their Unit something. None of these issues is easy to overcome; as my father once quoted to me, “that which is perceived to be real is real in the mind of the beholder.” No matter how much a person is suffering, these fears and other obstacles may prevent them from seeking the help that they so badly need and deserve.
Complicating the matter is the fact that not all men returning from combat will return with the disorder, even if they have been exposed to the very traumas that can trigger the disorder. While researchers are trying to understand this, the community needs to learn to understand that these men are all unique, and will all have a different response in the face of similar events. New research is suggesting that an individual’s past experiences may increase the likelihood of developing PTSD with subsequent exposures. Regardless, these men need to know that it’s okay to admit that something is wrong, seek treatment, and deal with it in the way that works best for them, and know that they will be fully supported by their families, friends, and the military community.
I was horrified when a neighbor once told me that a soldier that lived down the street from us was in hospital for PTSD treatment, and then whispered “but he’s never been overseas, so it’s bullshit – he just wants out.” What she didn’t know was that that soldier had been present at the rollover of a vehicle on a training exercise that had resulted in the grisly death of one of his best friends, and he had been the first to respond. It shocked me that the wife of another soldier could be so judgmental. Another soldier came back from an overseas deployment with severe PTSD, and eventually was paired with a PTSD Service Dog, which was prescribed by his doctor. It shocked me when members of the military community questioned the usefulness of the dog, and accused him of being an attention-seeker. Those suffering from PTSD do not owe anyone an explanation about their experiences, diagnosis, treatment, or the coping mechanisms they use.
If I had to boil everything down to one message, it would be this: The stigma that male soldiers should be strong and heroic needs to be broken. They, and we, need to recognize that being involved in combat training and operations takes a toll on them emotionally. They see and experience things most of us couldn’t imagine, and they come back changed men. It needs to be okay for men to stand up and say, “I need help.” The unshakeable male war hero doesn’t exist, and he never did. There is no PTSD G.I. Joe doll. It’s time to change our thinking, and stop thrusting the ideal of the battle-hardened war hero on them, and replace it with education, understanding, empathy, and support. Male or female, we’re all human, and these men need to feel comfortable seeking out help.
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