Issue Highlight Vol 40 Issue 3: Contradictory Notions of Violence and Trauma in the Military

This is the second post in a series of article highlights from our new September 2016 issue, available here. In this installment, we explore Tine Molendijk, Eric-Hans Kramer, and Désirée Verweij’s article “Conflicting Notions on Violence and PTSD in the Military: Institutional and Personal Narratives of Combat-Related Illness.” To read the full article, click here.


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Molendijk, Kramer, and Verweij observe that contemporary quantitative research reports that members of the military tend to underuse mental health services, most notably for PTSD. The reports note that soldiers’ beliefs about these services may be hindering utilization: however, existing studies have not specifically identified the beliefs or cultural factors that lead to under-utilization. Through a qualitative analysis of the literature, the authors argue that existing mental health interventions carry contradictory statements about violence and PTSD that may be casting particular social and moral frames onto mental illness. These interventions thus situate PTSD within a pre-figured framework, rather than presenting PTSD and trauma in a manner that individualizes and “decontextualizes” its presentation amongst members of the military: whose personal narratives also offer a distinct perspective on the experience of PTSD. The study focuses on PTSD and its treatment namely amongst the US, UK, and Dutch contexts.

To begin, the authors state that the diagnostic category of PTSD per the DSMV (and its implementation in practice) itself imposes a particular cadence on the disorder, stipulating that it emerges in response to an isolated or otherwise triggering single event, rather than to a diffuse string of violent occurrences or social disruptions. The diagnosis also pathologizes the degree of transition between military and civilian life which, to some degree, must and does occur for all soldiers. “The current mainstream PTSD-concept, with its focus on trauma exposure and individual susceptibilities,” the authors argue, “frames PTSD as the response of an individual to an event,” rather than an individual to a series of events, or many people to a range of traumas.

Beyond the diagnostic category, the “infrastructure” surrounding PTSD and its treatment in the military also impacts the way the illness is conceived and given meaning. The authors “divided the PTSD-infrastructure into five categories: pre-enlistment screening, basic training programs, counseling during deployment and pre- and post-deployment psycho-education, post-deployment screening through a survey and a meeting, and therapy.” In the earliest stages, potential military recruits are screened for existing mental illness, while those who pass screening are then subjected to psychological conditioning in their training intended to bolster soldiers’ emotional and psychological fortitude against combat scenarios. Throughout and after deployment, soldiers are also counseled and receive mental health guidance intended to ease adjustments between the “battlemind” state and the “civilian” mindset. These numerous institutional mechanisms indicate that the military infrastructure situates PTSD as a dysfunctional “deviation” from the ‘functional’ “battlemind,” rather than a natural response to trauma. Thus PTSD is cast as the failure of an individual to integrate and compartmentalize a traumatic event within the mental frameworks for coping that they have already been given, even though the military has already anticipated trauma and attempted to prepare soldiers in the event of psychological disturbance.

From the personal perspective of soldiers, however, the experience of PTSD is presented in a different but equally conflicting light. The authors note that soldiers are expected to psychologically identify and process traumatic events, but are also instructed to resist considering the emotional impact of these events: thereby cognitively preventing them from narrating, contextualizing, and giving meaning to traumatic instances. Furthermore, as violence is a routine aspect of military labor, responses to it are not necessarily “exceptional.” Entire squads may experience the same trauma, although they may not all be later diagnosed with PTSD, or share the belief that mental health care is appropriate for overcoming psychological trauma. Indeed, in military culture, many soldiers may not perceive violence as a trigger, but– as noted earlier– an expected and normal part of daily work. Additionally, acts of military violence may not be perceived as traumatic if they are viewed as necessary, just, or appropriate. Amongst soldiers themselves, PTSD therefore carries conflicting and multiple meanings. The authors summarize that “soldiers have learned that exposure to violence can harm a soldier, and that PTSD-like symptoms are not unusual. However, at the same time, they have learned that violence and stress are inherent to a soldier’s job, and that ‘good soldiers’ should be able to deal with it.” Soldiers who struggle with trauma, therefore, are given resources to address it, but may suspect that it is normal and does not (or should not) require medical intervention. Thus both the institution and the nature of the profession generate conflicting messages about the etiology and treatment of PTSD amongst soldiers.

To some degree, the authors remark, the transition from active deployment (and its related trauma or exposure to violence) to civilian life contains unavoidable contradictions, as the psychological mindset needed for combat versus the mindset for civilian life differ greatly, and the adjustments between them may be difficult. However, the contradictions within the institutional narrative of PTSD– that it is dysfunctional, yet expected, and provided with interventions–may be preventing soldiers from understanding whether or not their response to violence requires treatment, or if seeking help is a stigmatized act. Ultimately, the authors conclude, “the [existing institutional] PTSD-narrative can give soldiers the feeling that important elements of their problems are not taken into account, or that they are translated into an individual problem. If so, soldiers then hear no narrative through which they can understand and articulate their experiences and potential inner struggles about the meaning of these experiences.” The authors’ findings therefore indicate that there are significant and potentially problematic conceptual rifts in the understanding of PTSD between soldiers and institutions, and amongst soldiers acting within the military infrastructure.

 

 

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