Veterans Day 11 November 2013

As many of you know, I am a proud supporter of our military and veterans. I have the utmost respect for the sacrifices that they make and am so grateful for the freedom that they fight to defend. Last year, I spoke about the fact that many schools have opted out of celebrating Veterans Day, which I still find truly appalling, especially when they take time to celebrate Columbus Day, a day celebrating a man for bringing about the genocide of Native Americans and introducing slavery to North America (click here for last year’s blog post).

When we look at US society, what does it tell us about how we treat our veterans? Well, we celebrate by offering an optional Federal holiday (see last year’s post containing my fury over schools opting out of recognizing Veterans Day) and offering a multitude of sales for non-veterans and service members. There are those companies that offer free meals and discounts to veterans and active duty military on Veterans Day but those don’t nearly stand out to me as much as the companies that offer discounts throughout the year. Yes, Veterans Day is celebrated on Nov. 11, but is that the only day we should thank our veterans for their service and sacrifice? HELL NO! As a rule, veterans are not looking for handouts and charity. Recognition for the service and sacrifices that they made mean so much more. Letting them know that they matter, that they may have seen and experienced atrocities that civilians cannot even come close to imagining and survived is just one of the ways in which these men and women are heroes. But even more importantly, treating them like human beings, talking to them like normal people and not some media-created scary figure that will at any moment freak out in a fit of violent PTSD.

The truth is any exposure to trauma can lead a person to suffer from PTSD. It is not something that only occurs among the military although the media over-represents military in their PTSD coverage. Not everyone with PTSD engage in violent behavior, although again our popular media over-represents the correlation between violence and PTSD. Would you stop buying ice cream in the summer months when you learn of the strong positive correlation between ice cream sales and homicide rates in the summer months? No (that is a spurious correlation ignoring the important variable of temperature and remember correlation does not equal causation). Thus we should not treat our veterans and military with suspicion because of the popular media’s skewed reporting of information.

We are not doing our veterans any favors by perpetuating the myth of the violent and out-of-control veteran. In truth, it reflects very poorly on us civilians as well because rather than embrace the men and women who sacrifice so much for our freedoms, we would rather turn our backs to them and keep them segregated from society whether it is through unemployment, homelessness, or discrimination of other forms. Being a veteran should be a badge of honor not something a person seeks to hide for fear of discrimination. Here is a blog post by Kate Holt that was posted on 6 March 2012 that is worth reading: “The ‘Dangerous’ Veteran: An Inaccurate Media Narrative Takes Hold.”

We have a long way to go in our society regarding the treatment of our military and veterans. We civilians should be embracing the skills and characteristics that are honed and necessary for military service. We should remember and honor those who have given the ultimate sacrifice. We should help our military and veterans reintegrate into society by accepting their perspectives as valid, by acknowledging the strength they have to endure, by respecting their service and sacrifice, and by integrating them into jobs and schools. We can learn so much from these brave men and women and the fact that society chooses not to is very disappointing. As an educator, it is my duty to facilitate the learning of my students and foster the critical thinking skills necessary to succeed in life. As a society, we have a duty to accept all members of society and not turn our backs on those who we ask to make the ultimate sacrifice only to revile them for their actions when they return survivors.

I try to make it a point to speak with at least one veteran a day besides my family members and friends who have and are currently serving. I try to ensure that issues that affect our troops and veterans remain at the forefront of our consciousness by sharing information about some of the amazing programs out there, including but not limited to Wounded Warrior Project, Team Rubicon, The Mission Continues, Operation Gratitude, and The Gary Sinise Foundation. It is the very least I can do to express my gratitude for the freedom that I enjoy.

To the veterans and active-duty military I offer my most sincere thank you for your service and sacrifice. I know that I would not be here today if it were not for you and I would not enjoy the life I live if it were not for your sacrifice. Thank you very much from the bottom of my heart. Stay safe and be well.

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Mental Health Awareness Month

Compared to other countries, the U.S. is definitely more accepting of mental health issues however, there remains a strong negative stigma associated with mental health issues. For anyone who has ever been treated for anxiety, depression, even flying phobias, your medical records will indicate that you were treated for a mental illness and thus labeled as uninsurable according to the health insurance companies. Health care is not considered a human right in the U.S., the land of the free.  I will table my tirade and comments on the U.S. health care system for another time. It is these types of obstacles that feed into the negative stigma of mental illness and further dissuade people from seeking help.

For some reason, it is seen as a sign of weakness to seek help for a wide number of things from help with parenting, relationship issues, depression, job issues, etc.  And that is just naming a very limited few of the issues that civilians may battle. How about individuals who work in high-stress jobs or jobs that may require the taking of another life or exposure to the absolute worst examples of humanity – i.e. air traffic controllers, police officers, firefighters, nurse, doctors, paramedics, and of course, our soldiers? If an individual who works as an administrative assistant views seeking counseling for anxiety as a sign of weakness, what about the individual who is expected to be the brave ones, the first responders, the defenders of freedom, the life savers? We need to eliminate this stigma.

Some may argue that they see no problem. It is up to an individual to take care of himself/herself. I disagree. This stigma has resulted in high unemployment for groups of individuals who may be viewed as mentally ill or unstable, which leads to high poverty rates and homelessness for these individuals (as a result of joblessness and inability to obtain health insurance to cover medical care and possible medications), and in a small number of cases, individuals may resort to violence. Unfortunately, the media plays a terrible role in all of this. By sensationalizing the small number of incidents of violence perpetrated by someone who may be suffering from a mental health issue, the media has stoked the fire of fear in our society against those who are suffering from mental health issues, even though most of them are non-violent. Further, by portraying only the violent symptoms that some (not all) soldiers, veterans, first responders, and others who suffer from PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), these men and women often find themselves discriminated against in anything from finding a job to adopting a child.

Some politicians have called for legislation to be passed that restricts the rights of individuals who suffer from mental illness. What they do not seem to understand is that mental illness is not a fixed, static category of disorders and conditions. The official classification system is found in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) published by the American Psychiatric Association. Since its first publication in 1952, it has undergone several updates and revisions. Over the years, conditions have been added and removed from the classification system of mental illness. For example, homosexuality was considered a mental disorder until it was officially removed from the classification in 1986. Another example is with ADHD (Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder) which officially appeared in 1980 but partially appeared in 1968 under a different designation (hyperkinetic reaction of childhood). The next DSM will be released this month with several changes including the addition of gambling disorder and changes in the definition of PTSD. See the American Psychiatric Association website for more information.

The bottom line is that mental illness is viewed as a sign of weakness, a form of deviance from social norms, and treated with fear and avoidance. There is no shame in asking for help. The world has changed dramatically and even civilians may experience traumatic events that may forever change their outlook and mental health. Do we punish those who witness acts of violence? In theory, no, in practice yes and it is done through the continued discrimination and negative portrayal of mental illness. This needs to stop and the sooner the better. If the media insist on sensationalizing mental illness, they MUST get their facts straight and present all of the information, not just what will attract the most viewers and be considered the most scintillating. Society must be shown and educated about mental health issues. We need to spread the news about how inaccurate the media’s portrayal and resulting societal treatment of the mentally ill is damaging our society, not only socially, but within the judicial, economic, and education institutions among others. We need to promote tolerance and respect not fear and ignorance.  And for those battling with what may be considered mental health issues, remember that you are not alone.

Here are some links that may be of interest:

Bryan A. Wood “Sometimes The Hardest Part to Going to War is Coming Home”

Myke Cole “What PTSD Is”

Kate Holt “The ‘Dangerous’ Veteran: An Inaccurate Media Narrative Takes Hold”

Veterans Crisis Line

National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) Finding Help for Mental Illness

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)

Suicide Awareness Voices of Education (SAVE)

National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Mental Health

Mental Health Help Hotlines