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Shedding Stigma of Mental Illness Within the Military

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While the Obama Administration fends off bad news over its handling of the Benghazi tragedy, the IRS's enhanced scrutiny of conservative groups, and the Justice Department's snooping on the phone calls of AP reporters, the military continues to reel not only from a sexual-assault scandal but also from increasing rates of suicide in its ranks.

Over the years, I have written on a number of occasions about the need for the Obama Administration to write condolence letters to the families of troops who commit suicide. I have also been trying to de-stigmatize mental illness in society at large and particularly among men since I wrote a 2005 op-ed in the L.A. Times, titled "Shedding Stigma of the 'Psycho' Straitjacket."

A recent New York Times article by James Dao and Andrew W. Lehren revealed that in the past dozen or so years, roughly since the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq began, suicides within the U.S. armed forces have increased at a much faster rate than in the civilian population. We have now reached the point where our troops, historically more immune to suicide, are as likely as our civilians to take their lives. The rate is roughly 18 per 100,000 people in both the military and civilian sectors.

As I have written many times before, there is never any one reason why a person commits suicide. The Times pointed this out too.

Still, the Times listed a number of factors, which may contribute to the suicide of a member of the military. Those factors include: "mental illness, sexual or physical abuse, addictions, failed relationships, financial struggles."

I agree that these can all be factors that, combined with one another, can make it more likely that a soldier might feel suicidal. I have also discussed other factors in the past, such as the lack of a sense of purpose in the life of a soldier when he or she comes back from a deployment.

As I pointed out several times before, troops are most likely to commit suicide when they are home in the U.S., not when they are in a war zone like Iraq or Afghanistan. The Times article indicated that "more than 80 percent (of troops who committed suicide in recent years) had never been in combat."

This is why I have been so critical of the White House's policy on condolence letters. Originally, the White House wrote no condolence letters to the families of military suicides.

Then, after a lobbying campaign from many, including this reporter, the White House changed its policy by writing condolence letters, but it limited those letters to only the families of those troops who committed suicide in combat. As I have pointed out before, this is a failed policy because the lion's share of military suicides do not occur in a war zone.

Beyond the failure of the Obama Administration's condolence letter policy, I want to emphasize to all the troops out there that there is no shame in seeking help for mental illness.

Sadly, many men in and out of the military continue to feel that they are less than manly if they seek help. As the Times noted, Cpl. Wade Toothman, a Marine, who had seen a buddy die in Iraq, refused to see a psychiatrist for what was likely PTSD. He ended up taking his life.

Why did he refuse to see a psychiatrist? "People will say I'm crazy," he told his mother. Cpl. Toothman evidently feared that he would be unable to get a job if people knew he had PTSD and was in therapy.

While I recognize that the military is a unique institution with its own codes of conduct and ethos, this policy, tacit though it may be, of stigmatizing mental illness has got to end.

I don't know how many times I have written that mental illness is not a sign of weakness or lack of masculinity. It is a complicated issue that has probably afflicted men and women since the beginning of time.

Winston Churchill, one of the great warriors and political leaders of the past century, famously suffered from depression, his "black dog," as he called it.

Less well known may be the fact that King David, another one of history's great warriors, was not only depressed but also likely psychotic. In the Psalms, David writes, "All that hate me whisper together against me: against me do they devise my hurt."

As I have written before, "with Saul's army chasing after David, it is no wonder that the future king is deeply paranoid" and that David writes, "An evil disease, say they, cleaveth fast unto him."

Our troops should keep in mind that Churchill, David and other depressed leaders like Abraham Lincoln are some of the most heroic men this planet has ever seen. Not one of them was other than manly. They were tough guys, tough enough to deal with the severe pain and trauma of their mental illness and to tame it.

Taking your life may seem to end the pain but it leaves a legacy of devastation in its wake, the repercussions of which can be felt for generations in a family.

I know, as three men, including my grandfather, have taken their lives in my family.

It is time for men in and out of the military to stop fearing any stigma regarding mental illness. And it is time for society, in particular the U.S. armed forces, to go beyond paying lip service to mental health and to welcome men in seeking treatment for their depression, psychosis, PTSD and other disorders of the mind.

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