Filed under the “better late than never” department, we have word via The New York Times today that the U.S. military is finally recognizing the importance of fitness. Not just physical fitness, mind you, but mental fitness training, in the form of improving one’s resiliency:
The training, the first of its kind in the military, is meant to improve performance in combat and head off the mental health problems, including depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and suicide, that plague about one-fifth of troops returning from Afghanistan and Iraq.
Psychologist Martin E. P. Seligman at the University of Pennsylvania has been consulting with the Pentagon on the innovative program. There’s no direct research that’s been conducted on soldiers to see if such a program will be beneficial, but other research in this area suggests that by teaching people some of these basic psychological coping skills, a person will be better positioned to deal with stress and stressful situations in a more positive manner. The Army is also going to track the results of this program, in time providing them with some hard data about its effectiveness.
The program is going to face huge psychological hurdles. The military is not particularly known for its embracing of soldiers who share their “feelings” about a situation. Luckily, this program isn’t really so much about sharing of feeling as it is simply teaching better stress-coping, communication and resiliency skills. However, it may be hard to get over that stigma that all psychological interventions — even educational courses like this one — are bunk.
In an open exchange at an early training session here last week, General Casey asked a group of sergeants what they thought of the new training. Did it seem too touchy-feely?
“I believe so, sir,” said one, standing to address the general. He said a formal class would be a hard sell to a young private “who all he wants to do is hang out with his buddies and drink beer.”
But others disagreed, saying the program was desperately needed. And in the interview, General Casey said the mental effects of repeated deployments — rising suicide rates in the Army, mild traumatic brain injuries, post-traumatic stress — had convinced commanders “that we need a program that gives soldiers and their families better ways to cope.”
I think this is just a misunderstanding of what the program’s about and what it hopes to teach. But it also speaks to the fact that most enlisted men who join the army haven’t attended college, and generally have a different educational background than others. A program needs to be particularly tailored to the audience you’re trying to reach, and I’m hoping this program gets to the point where soldiers recognize its value earlier on.
“Psychology has given us this whole language of pathology, so that a soldier in tears after seeing someone killed thinks, ‘Something’s wrong with me; I have post-traumatic stress,’ ” or P.T.S.D., Dr. Seligman said.
“The idea here is to give people a new vocabulary, to speak in terms of resilience. Most people who experience trauma don’t end up with P.T.S.D.; many experience post-traumatic growth.”
Many of the sergeants were at first leery of the techniques. “But I think maybe it becomes like muscle memory — with practice you start to use them automatically,” said Sgt. First Class Darlene Sanders of Fort Jackson, S.C.
A perfect example of how simply changing our way of thinking about something can change our interest and openness to try something new or different. It’s not all about what’s wrong with you — it’s also about learning how to make better use of your own strengths, and improve upon those things we know will help. Resilience isn’t quite like inoculation, but it can help a person rebound from a traumatic or stressful situation far more quickly than if they don’t have the tools available for their use.
When it comes to the kinds of stress that soldiers face, the more tools the better. It’s refreshing to see the armed forces command embracing this different way of addressing their soldiers’ mental health needs.
Read the full article: Mental Stress Training Is Planned for U.S. Soldiers