The shooting of thirteen soldiers at Ft. Hood, Texas last month highlighted the emotional and psychological stresses on military personnel facing two active wars and multiple deployments. Although a significant number of returning soldiers report experiencing psychological wounds, many are reluctant to reach out for help, fearing damage to their careers or reputations with the stigma of mental health issues.
Asian American soldiers may face even greater hurdles in seeking help because of cultural stigma and family histories of depression and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
“Treatment is so important,” says Trisha Pearce, director of the Soldier’s Project NW, a volunteer organization that provides mental health counseling for returning military and their families. “A stress reaction is a wound from combat, though many cannot see this as a wound from war.”
The military has made efforts in the last few years to improve attitudes about mental health. Requirements to report mental health consultations were eliminated last year, and higher level military have publicly acknowledged the value of counseling. In a 2008 interview, then-chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen said, “Psychological health and fitness is no different than physical health and fitness. Both are readiness issues.”
But Pearce says lower rank personnel still believe their chances of advancement diminish if they acknowledge a problem. While nearly one out of three service members reported a mental health problem, including depression and PTSD, or symptoms of traumatic brain injury, only half of those actually sought help, according to a 2008 Rand Corporation study. Some have anecdotally reported receiving negative treatment or punishment for asking for help.
The Soldiers Project NW offers soldiers a way to avoid the stigma by seeking help outside the military. The volunteer project also provides services for anyone affected by returning combatants, including parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, same sex partners, boyfriends, girlfriends, even roommates.
The number one thing the project sees is relationship problems. “I get calls from a spouse, or boyfriend or girlfriend, saying, “I can’t take it anymore, I am at the end of my rope,” says Pearce. “Or vets call and say, “They can’t deal with me because I have changed so much since I got back”.
“The impact is so tremendous. Families are being traumatized when a returned soldier dealing with stress does things like checking their perimeters to secure the neighborhood…or checking for enemy combatants on the freeway. Or they’re raging on the kids, and that never happened before they left.”
Pearce hears from just as many reservists and National Guard, who face an even greater challenge when they return from combat zones. Not being part of the regular military support system, they are expected to reintegrate back into their old lives, isolated from the camaraderie and shared experience of their military lives.
“A counselor can point out that stress is a normal reaction; they should be having problems,” says Pearce. “The majority of people have operational stress reactions that go away after a few months. Not all will develop PTSD.”
But many Asian families in the U.S. have already had their share of dealing with PTSD, and Asian American soldiers may be at higher risk for stress disorders and reintegration problems because of that. “Not even double the risk – maybe triple or more,” says Naty Lamug, Consultation and Education Coordinator for the Behavioral Health program at the Asian Counseling and Referral Service.
Many young Asian Americans have grown up in households where their parents or family members experienced the wars in Southeast Asia, and internalized their own terror without ever talking to their children about it.
Studies of PTSD in the military have identified premilitary risk factors that include family instability, severe punishment during childhood, depression, and growing up in an economically deprived family, things that describe conditions in many refugee families during and after their resettlement. “Children can experience the parents’ frustration, irritation, and anger while they are growing up,” says Lamug. “They can have ‘high context’, lots of exposure to many layers of stress.”
Because Asian households often include many extended family members, and family support is such an important part of Asian culture, “family therapy is the most effective [treatment] for AAPI’s,” says Lamug. However, military counseling services and support are available only to spouses and children of active military, one reason why the Soldiers Project NW could be a valuable resource for Asian families.
Psychological wounds from the Southeast Asian wars continue to surface, not just in those whose homelands were affected but also in the soldiers who were sent there to fight. Media coverage of Iraq and Afghanistan has brought Vietnam veterans who never sought help themselves to the Soldiers Project NW. Pearce refers them to other places; she remains focused on people who have been involved in the global war on terror since 9/11. She is hopeful the stigma of mental health may be diminishing.
A rough sign nailed to a tree near Ft. Hood puts it bluntly: “In war, there are no unwounded soldiers.”
Please visit: www.thesoldierproject.org