Lesson from Fort Hood: our troops need more care
If it’s possible that anything positive could come out of the Fort Hood shootings in the United States last week let’s hope it raises the much maligned profile of mental health in the armed forces.
One third of American troops return home from Iraq suffering from some form of mental health issue.
High divorce rates and domestic violence are also increasingly common.
So when you consider President Obama’s recent announcement to send 40, 000 more troops to Iraq things are staring to look pretty bad.
As Tim Blair wrote earlier this week it’s naïve and stupid to ignore the place of Major Nidal Malik Hasan’s religious and political connections in the tragedy.
His actions are indefensible. And the latest reports of unexplained connections to a recruiter for al Qaeda or his justification of suicide bombings and anti-American propaganda all point to a potentially collaborative and dark act of terrorism. Not to mention they’re alarmingly out of step with expectations and behaviour of “normal” soldiers.
Whether Hasan was acting as an extremist killing in cold blood or as a result of some psychological disturbance, or a combination of both, remains to be seen. But it does shed some light on the difficulties with handling the mental health of soldiers.
Newsweek columnist Kate Daily has suggested Hasan’s terrifying actions could also well be seen as a real example of how impossible it is to chart the impact of an eight year war- even on those not fighting.
And there’s support for this theory best found in reports from military families and soldiers themselves.
For example at a ceremony held on Sunday for the victims of the Fort Hood shootings June Taylor a Military mother told CBS news: “One of their own has gone off the deep end, for whatever reason, we don’t know what happened, but he needed help.”
While the potentially damaging psychological effects of warfare clearly haven’t led to such tragic results, the mental health of our troops remains a cause for concern.
The Age reported earlier this year up to 10 per cent of our troops return home with long-term mental health issues; a statistic made worse in the knowledge that we have so few services available to provide assistance.
The Australian Defence Force announced its commitment to a $83m mental health care plan in May this year that includes the recruitment of mental health workers.
But they also admit more needs to be done to address aspects like the involvement of family members and improved mental health training for ADF Staff.
One program that has taken off in the United States and to a lesser extent, the United Kingdom is Virtual Iraq. It’s a computer simulated program that draws on sights, sounds and smells of the war. Based on immersion therapy it forces Iraq veterans to confront their fears and memories head-on.
You can read one veteran’s account of the program here but it’s not for the fainthearted.
Resembling something like a journal entry of a nightmare it’s difficult to imagine just how much courage it would take for someone who had just been through the horrors of war to keep fronting up for such extreme treatment on a regular basis.
Despite the intensity developers say its effective and most users report experiencing an ease in sleep patterns within a matter of weeks.
So what a shame then the program isn’t being offered to Australian veterans who could benefit from the accessibility of a virtual program.
According to Associate Professor Britt Klein a psychologist and the founder of the founder of pst-online.org at Swinburne University in Victoria, says programs like Virtual Iraq have been implemented to some extent here but lack of funding and the belief in the need for more research have held it back.
Watching the men and women in uniform selling badges today – as we remember the sacrifice of all those people from past generations who fought so bravely – I’m wondering what could possibly be holding us back.
The war is already eight years old.
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