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News > Commentary - Mental injuries, illnesses are killers
Mental injuries, illnesses are killers

Posted 2/8/2012   Updated 2/8/2012 Email story   Print story


Commentary by Don Branum
Air Force Academy Public Affairs

2/8/2012 - U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. (AFNS)  -- What would you do if you suffered a broken leg tomorrow? Chances are, you would go to an emergency room, see a doctor, have your leg x-rayed and placed in a cast and get a set of crutches. You wouldn't be back to 100 percent right away, but you could at least function.

Now, what would you do if you suffered a broken mind? That answer's not so clear-cut. Mental injuries don't present themselves the same way physical injuries do: The nerve receptors that tell you your heart is broken work differently than the receptors that fire when you break a leg.

But mental injuries and illnesses are just as serious as their physical counterparts. In fact, they claimed more Airmen's lives last month than physical trauma: 15 active duty, Guard and Reserve Airmen took their own lives in January, compared with three who were killed in combat operations over the same period.

Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz, in calling for all Air Force units to take a one day stand down from normal operations, wrote, "Our Airmen are too important to lose in this manner, and the costs to individuals, families, friends, co-workers and our mission are beyond measure."

During the Air Force Academy's stand down Jan. 26, Chief Master Sgt. Todd Salzman, the Academy's command chief, said he had sought help from mental health professionals, but he had to overcome the stigma that "command chiefs don't need help." Someone in my office said he also had to seek help after realizing he was dealing with his stress in all the wrong ways.

Now, a one-day stand down is not going to solve anything in and of itself. A one-day event is not magically going to make everyone in the unit resilient: Whatever baggage we carried on Jan. 25 probably came through with us into Jan. 27.

But the purpose of the stand down was never to "fix" anyone -- it was to get people talking about the problem. As Academy superintendent Lt. Gen. Mike Gould said during the stand down here, "Seeking help is a strength, not a weakness."

It's hard to talk about frailty. It's hard to seek help because of the prevailing cultural attitude that there's "something wrong" with someone who's mentally ill or that it's "all in his head." In the first case, nothing could be further from the truth, any more than there's "something wrong" with someone who has multiple sclerosis or breast cancer. In the second case, of course mental illness or injury is all in a person's head, but that makes it no less real.

As someone who's been diagnosed with depression, I can talk a bit about what it feels like.

Imagine that things are going really well at work and at home -- all the bills are paid, you have money to spare, you have a family that loves you and with whom you get to spend a good amount of quality time. Despite all of that, you can't shake the feeling that you don't deserve it or that things aren't good enough or that they're about to take a sharp turn for the worse.

You feel ashamed because, you tell yourself, you should feel good about everything that's going right! Worse, you may end up subconsciously sabotaging yourself: doing something you know will create trouble in your work life or picking an argument at home about something stupid.

My depression is mild. Through medication and talking to friends on a regular basis, I can keep a handle on it. It's taken years to get to the point where I felt comfortable talking about it.

But talking about depression -- whether with friends or trained counselors -- has probably saved my life. My friend's daughter nearly died because she didn't talk about hers sooner. It was only through luck, or perhaps providence, that the young woman is still alive -- my friend walked in on her daughter as she was trying to hang herself.

It took my friend almost two weeks to get to the point where she felt comfortable talking about it. On the "Rock-n-Roll Buddha" blog on Jan. 23, she wrote:

"... Every fight with her brother, every stressful school project, every disagreement with her dad, every single anxiety, every argument with me, every pressure she placed upon herself, everything ... ever ... has been tucked away and buried so no one could see. On the 11th, after a small argument, it simply became too much to contain, and her little emotional soul could take no more."

You can, and should, read the entirety of my friend's blog post. You'll find it here: "This is a very difficult blog to post." Take a look at the signs of depression, which have a lot in common with post-traumatic stress disorder and combat stress. Take a look at what you can do to build your personal resilience and to manage depression if you think you might be dealing with it yourself.

And most importantly, if you're in a dark place, talk to someone about it. Don't let it kill you. It doesn't matter who you are -- you're too important to lose.

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