Lost Art of Community

We live in a time and place where nothing bad really happens. People can go months, years even decades without experiencing anything closely related to trauma. In fact, I’d wager that there’s no shortage of people out there, in their 20’s and 30’s who’ve never experienced abuse, loss or even death. Sure, bad things happen to everyone, but in our western bubble we’ve manged to insulate our daily lives from suffering.

And at first glance, this might look like a great thing, and at one level it is. Safety, security and a dramatic reduction of danger are all a result of affluence. Today we are far more easily able to collect and accumulate personal possessions and wealth then previous generations. In turn, we are far more individualistic then previous generations.

If our society has perfected the art of buffering individuals and groups from harm, why then is this generation one of the worst affected by mental illness? Why is this generation one of the worst affected with behavioural disorders?  We are witnessing a generation rise up who, despite having every comfort, are for the most part the unhappiest generation ever. It is affected with some of the highest rates of depression, schizophrenia, poor health, anxiety and chronic illness in human history. Why, in all our technological advancements in health, security and communication, are we one of the most disconnected and lonely generations of all time? How can we live surrounded in urban environments, some of the densest residential dwellings known to the human race, and yet feel deeply, even dangerously alone?

Maybe, we’ve pursued all these great things and neglected ‘community’ along the way. What if accumulating affluence comes at a cost… What if it decreases our dependence on other people… What if it decreases our motivation to contribute to other people or groups within our society… What if…

What if… humans are built for hardship? What if humans were designed to thrive on it. We live in a time and place where nothing really bad happens. But it comes at the cost of experiencing something of what it means to be human. How do you become a mature adult in a society that doesn’t ask for sacrifice? How do you become a mature adult in a culture that doesn’t demand courage?

We are in the midst of a  generation of ‘adults’ who, for the most part have never been required to sacrifice. A generation that doesn’t know what loss or daily hardships are. So when tragedy strikes, (and it strikes everyone), it’s no wonder that a growing number within our society don’t know how to deal with it. It rapidly escalates and becomes overwhelming, pushing people beyond their limits. It would seem that rather than acting as a buffer, the modernisation of our societies has fostered mental health concerns.

One observation I’d made during my time as a medic in the Army, is that very few soldiers suffered mental health concerns ‘during’ their operational deployment. The soldiers I knew, young men and women, had been thrown into hideous circumstances, exposed to all kinds of traumatic situations, and in the moment, they cope exceptionally well. These young adults, to mention a few things, were dealing with life changing injuries, death, killing, murder, racism, religious extremism, prolonged separation from family and the uncertainty of hidden and indiscriminate enemy explosives. Yet, their health and well-being in the midst of this tribulation was almost always good.

Again, from my observation, there were two primary things that held these soldiers together. The first was a deep sense of comradery amongst the ranks. It was a bond that brought men and women together as brothers and sisters. It was a community that was as close as family. When one person struggled, everyone struggled with them. The second was in that environment everyone had a purpose. There was a obligation to contribute to the collective, and permission to lean on the collective when needed. There was a great honour in being strong, but at the same time there was no shame in moments of weakness. Everyone had a role to play and that role, in the community was meaningful.

But skip forward a few years, and the picture is far more grim. We lost 6 soldiers in combat on our operational deployment, and since then, at last count, we’ve lost 6 more to suicide. There are countless more suffering with ongoing mental health problems such as moral injury, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety and so on. And since returning home, the two things that soldiers relied upon are almost entirely neglected by our affluent society.

Our western culture is highly individualistic. When we get home after work we close the doors and windows and tend to ourselves and our family. The system honours those who work hard and succeed on an individualistic level.

And, as a consequence of heightened individualism, our culture has perfected the art of making people feel unnecessary. People are almost always regarded as indispensable. People aren’t required to contribute to a larger group, and people don’t therefore, have permission to lean upon someone else without feeling a sense of shame.

When a soldier is removed from their tribe-like community, they find themselves overwhelmed by the burden of their experiences because they no longer share it with their peers.

I’m not a mental health professional, and I’m certain that many victims of trauma suffer very real and prolific mental illnesses, but what if sometimes it was less about the trauma itself, and more about the way we as a society prepare, and deal with trauma as a community?

From my own experience, as a Christian, my worldview expects suffering to happen. It gives permission for bad things to take place. The way I look at the world legitimises suffering. I have permission to have good days and bad days, permission to feel lonely and sad. But I also have a hope, that being human isn’t limited to my physical experiences. This way, in the bigger picture, traumatic events don’t undo my entire universe. Sure, for a time they suck, but the fabric that my world is constructed on remains in tact. As a Christian, my suffering has a purpose, even if I can’t see it at the time.

I also found that having deep spiritual and familial connections enabled me to better process the trauma that I’ve experienced. There were nights where I couldn’t sleep as I wrestled with deep injustices that had been committed against innocent people. There were moments were overwhelming sadness came upon me as I wrestled with the concepts of life and death. There’s been times I’ve been was torn to shreds over relationship troubles, but I’ve always found comfort in meeting with like-minded people, allowing them to comfort me and knowing that I was a comfort in return. I found comfort and value in community.

Maybe as a result of all this, we need to be less concerned about immunising ourselves from any risk of suffering, and more concerned about learning how to experience it in a healthy way. Maybe we need to give ourselves permission to struggle and do more to accept others as they struggle.

Veterans… PTSD… and the Descent to Hell

Up front: I’m not a psychologist. I certainly can’t speak with clinical authority, yet I am a returned servicemen from the Afghanistan conflict so the following is a short reflection on my post-war experiences.

There is little doubt that in the past decade or two society has made leaps and bounds on the mental health front. Prior to deploying, during my deployment and after my deployment I was asked to participate in several psychological examinations to flag any problematic areas caused by my involvement in war. Nothing came up, but I was told where to find help if it did.

Despite increased awareness, knowledge and intervention there is still an alarming trend that is seeing war veterans escape the aftermath and mental collateral damage by spiralling out of control.

Today ABC News reported that there is an increase in veterans ending up in court and in jail. The head of Adelaide’s ex-Military Rehabilitation Centre, Ian Campbell, has 16 soldiers on his books who are either in jail, before the courts or on parole. He said that “A coping mechanism is to drink or to drug,” and “I found that in the majority of cases, mental health had a profound effect on the service person’s offending.” 

So is there a reason that despite increased awareness in mental health there is a continued problem? Is it unavoidable?

One observation is that in our wider culture, not just the military, we are reinforced with the belief that we can avoid harm if we tick all the boxes. And if something does go wrong we can fix it. We live in a society that bubble wraps its citizens in insurance, WHS regulation, superannuation, warranties, health care, litigation and so on. If something goes wrong it’s always someone’s fault and it can always be fixed.  In the Army we are subliminally told that if we train harder, fight smarter, are better equipped, have better intel, have better leaders, have better support, have better risk management and have higher moral that we can avoid harm.

Yet no matter how much effort you put into preparing for war, sooner or later, something will go wrong. It’s not a question of if, it’s a question of when. And while it’s not always the case, quite often, in war, no one can be blamed. An example is when a soldier dies in conflict. Medics are often the first responders to this type of tragic scene and every now and then some people are beyond saving… Yet, the medic is trained, mostly by our society, that someone is always at fault. Someone must be held accountable. In this example, more often than not the medic will inappropriately blame himself.

Upon returning home, despite huge efforts made on behalf of the ADF and associations such as the RSL and DVA, young men and women turn what was a blameless situation into guilt and shame. In an inescapable downward spiral they try and escape by all means possible. I have seen soldiers seek meaning and value in alcohol, drugs, women, cars, money and any combination of the above.

There’s little wonder soldiers who are suffering are ending up in a courthouse. So what’s an answer?

Again, I’m not a psychologist, but I do see several potential layers to the problem.

1. The problematic social behaviour, (or even becoming a recluse and not communicating / engaging);
2. There may be physical distress caused by broken bodies and/or struggling minds;
3. The possibility of pseudo-guilt and shame that’s piled on by inappropriate blame;
4. They may feel out of control. They might feel unlovable or unable to love others. This is often displayed by shunning loved ones, or lashing out in anger; and
5. If they are conscious of their faith, they may feel that even God doesn’t like them.

Inside and out, on many possible levels, someone struggling with PTSD probably feels broken. They will possibly seek to fix this brokenness, (remember our society tells us that if we tick all the boxes no harm will come our way, and if it does we can always fix it). They will possibly try and fix this brokenness and when they can’t they might resort to the problematic behaviour again. It’s a viscous downward spiral. A decent into hell.

Because this is a multifaceted problem just telling a soldier to harden up and get over it is clearly not the answer. Even if he manages to fix the problematic behaviour in the first layer, there’s still several layers that aren’t being dealt with. What soldiers need is a community of people who can support them. They need professional support, given in a safe environment where there is trust and acceptance. They need the support of their friends and family, and co-workers. They need the support of people from organisations like DVA and the RSL to get alongside them and encourage them to make good choices. And it’s not about getting one of those options to help out, it’s about getting ALL of those options to help out. What they need more than anything else is our understanding and acceptance.

About two years after returning from my deployment I entered a very dark place. Without the support of my church, friends, Christian counsellors and professional psychologists I would not have been able to recover. I am currently finishing my training to return to the Army as a padre. When I do I am going to consider it a great privilege to be able to tell people that:

Despite what our culture tells you pain and suffering are unavoidable. I am going to challenge every soldier I can by asking them… “When trouble comes, who will you turn to? What’s your game plan”.