Active duty military and veterans continue to struggle with mental health and substance use. Last week, we learned that suicide rates once again spiked 15% year over year. To help our fellow vets, we have to reframe how we think about mental health. Here are three ways to change our thinking about toughness, mental health, and substance use and keep our battle buddies alive.
1. “Toughing It Out” with Mental Health Results in Disastrous Consequences
With a couple miles left in the run, I looked to my left, and I clumsily rolled my ankle. The pain was sharp. While it wasn’t going to put me in the hospital, it certainly wasn’t going to make the last two miles of the run any easier. In hindsight, I probably didn’t do my mild ankle sprain any favors by running another two miles on it, but I stayed with the pack, at whatever cost to myself.
In the military we preach that we are only as strong as our weakest person. We believe in a selfless commitment to the unit, and admittedly, our reputation is more important than our mild ankle sprain.
Unfortunately, this learned behavior has extreme consequences with mental health. We view “mental toughness” as a virtue—being unflappable in the face of extreme circumstances is literally part of the job description. But compared to a sprained ankle, ignoring mental challenges leads to more serious long-term effects. When we are too macho to acknowledge struggles with mild depression or anxiety, they grow under the surface and eventually become unmanageable. By the time we raise the flag to get help, we are in deep. For many of our brothers and sisters, they never make it out. Despite being attached to infantry units in combat for 27 months, I’ve lost as many friends to mental health as I have to IEDs and enemy bullets.
Ironically, getting help for mental health early on makes us stronger in the long term, perhaps when it counts the most. In order to be there for the soldiers on our left and right, we must take care of ourselves first.
2. Running Away from Negative Thoughts and Emotions Is Akin to Running Away from an Enemy Combatant
When we think of “mental toughness,” we often equate it to not showing feeling or emotion. We put a wall up, not only to those around us, but also to ourselves. In our mind, this equates with strength. I submit, however, that it is just the opposite. Feeling negative thoughts and feelings is much harder than ignoring them. If we ignore an enemy combatant, he doesn’t just go away. We could never even consider ignoring an enemy at our gates.
Why then, do we have a double standard when it comes to facing internal battles? A strong person pays attention to their surroundings, face down their enemies, and addresses them head on. In the case of mental health, this form of toughness doesn’t mean that we cry all the time. We might, or we might not, but it isn’t about that. It’s about noticing the feelings, thoughts, and emotions within us and acknowledging them. It’s a lot tougher than running away.
Once we learn to acknowledge those negative thoughts and emotions, we take away their power. We can watch them like passing clouds; we notice them, feel what we feel, then watch them float away. Mental toughness is really this. It’s learning to deal with thoughts and emotions in a healthy way. It isn’t ignoring them, and it certainly isn’t running from them.
3. Using Alcohol to Cope Is a Recipe for Disaster
We come from a heavy drinking culture, where beer and whiskey are in our DNA. We all know that drinking TOO much can lead to a drinking problem. But often, the problem starts when we use alcohol as a crutch to cover up other issues. Phrases like “taking the edge off a hard day” or “man, I need a drink” are micro examples of alcohol’s ability to soothe mild symptoms. Sometimes it works…in the short term. But what if the problem is more than one tough day?
What if we are struggling with untreated depression and every day is tough. What if every day becomes unbearable? If we are used to using alcohol to help with the mild version of these symptoms, how much more do we rely on it if the symptoms become more severe? If we struggle with constant or situational anxiety, then we always need to take the edge off. If we have unresolved trauma? Then the only way we don’t get overwhelmed by the pain is to have a few (or more). If we have anxiety about how to find meaning in civilian life? Well, then every day becomes monotonous, and we lose who we are. How better to forget that feeling, than with our trusty friend? After all, he’s always been there for us before, and it’s never been an issue, right?
When we start to struggle with some serious issues with mental health or when real life deals us a tough blow, the habits we’ve learned prior can become a problem. Not only can it create a problem with alcohol itself, but then the alcohol worsens the mental health struggles.
In the end, the initial problem isn’t gone. Rather than get better, it has gotten much worse. Alcohol has evolved from a friend in the battle to an enemy. Before we even know what has happened, we have TWO problems, rather than one. And now, they are both bad.
Find Help at Sophros Recovery
As soldiers, we swore to take care of one another. We were ready to give our life for the men and women on our left and right. Now, there’s another call to arms to support one another by ending the stigma around mental health and substance use. We cannot allow our brothers and sisters to suffer from mental health issues and substance use any longer. Our friends are dying. And it’s time to do our part, once again, to keep them alive.
About the Author:
Nick Padlo is the founder and CEO of Sophros Recovery, a treatment facility for addiction and mental health. He is an army veteran of OEF and OIF who launched Sophros after his own personal battles with addiction and mental health. Find more veteran-focused mental health resources at www.sophrosrecovery.com or contact Sophros today at 904.760.4295.