It is a busy day on the firing range. I follow the basic rules of firearm safety—my finger is off the trigger, the muzzle is pointed in a safe direction, and the chamber is loaded only because I intend to fire. I take a deep breath, and *click*. No boom. Misfire. In accordance with my training, I wave to the rangemaster for assistance. He inspects my firearm, corrects the fault, and I continue as normal.
Now, instead of a firearm, consider that my weapon is my mind, the misfire is a deeply traumatic incident, and the rangemaster is counseling services. Do I fix the misfire myself? Would I get labeled as “the one with a misfire?” Would calling for the rangemaster result in my ejection from the range? I would feel more comfortable calling for assistance if I have seen my leaders do so without professional consequences. Our charge as leaders is to remove the stigma of seeking mental health help through our unabashed example.
Trauma comes in all shapes and sizes. Some carry lingering burdens from their upbringing, and others experience demoralizing ordeals in the military, ranging from long deployments away from loved ones and social distancing to decrease the risks of COVID-19 outbreak, to sexual harassment and assault. If combat situations are also included, we must consider shell shock and post-traumatic stress disorder. Service members are urged to take care of themselves in their off-time, but does everyone have the tools to resolve their issues on their own?
There is no military manual on how to treat a mind affected by trauma, whether minor or significant. The military offers a wealth of services by licensed professionals who are well-versed in mental health diagnoses and treatment. Society grows better equipped every day to help service members because others endured similar trials, and society learned from it.1 Even though these mental health resources are widely available and advertised, the majority of sailors still have reservations about getting the help they need.
Every September, a spotlight is focused on mental health as part of Suicide Prevention Month. However, mental health needs to be a priority throughout the year, and not limited to suicide-crisis levels. Mental health awareness also must include situations that are not critical emergencies yet can still negatively impact long-term behavior. When considering physical health, it is normal to walk through the hospital front door to be treated for minor allergies or a broken arm. If sailors lapse on fitness, they enroll in the Fitness Enhancement Program (FEP) while maintaining their same job. Mental health should be afforded the same level of normality.
While there are parallels to physical health, it also is important to note some discernable differences. Most physical ailments gradually reveal themselves through physical symptoms—fevers, coughs, aches, rashes, et cetera. Conversely, most mental health issues have more subtle symptoms, and can be unnoticeable except to those who have a personal relation with the individual. To help everyone recognize those symptoms, the military has widely distributed a color-coded reference outlining a continuum of the signs of stress in someone who can be categorized as ready, reacting, injured, or ill. More overt symptoms, such as panic attacks, apathy to cherished activities, and substance abuse or dependence usually manifest themselves late into mental health struggles. These emergencies that require counseling or medical services are the tip of the iceberg; the majority of situations are not so obvious except to sailors themselves. Because it does not feel like a crisis, sailors in those non-emergency situations will typically seek counseling services only if they perceive that the benefits outweigh the risks.
The biggest perceived risk in seeking counseling services is the stigma attached to mental health. In a January 2020 interview, Air Force General John Hyten confirmed this, stating, “There’s a stigma that’s still out there. And as long as that stigma is there, we won’t treat it effectively.” Part of this stigma stems from fear of losing a security clearance. However, it is important to note that the SF-86 (the background investigation form all service members must fill out to obtain a security clearance) specifically states at the beginning of Section 21 for Psychological and Emotional Health:
The government recognizes that mental health counseling and treatment may provide important support for those who have experienced [traumatic] events, as well as for those with other mental health conditions. Nothing in this questionnaire is intended to discourage those who might benefit from such treatment from seeking it. Mental health treatment and counseling, in and of itself, is not a reason to revoke or deny eligibility for access to classified information or for holding a sensitive position, suitability or fitness to obtain or retain Federal or contract employment, or eligibility for physical or logical access to federally controlled facilities or information systems.
Senior leaders within the military community already are encouraging sailors to seek mental health services without fear of reprisal. Navy Captain Dr. Mike Colston, director of Mental Health Programs for the Department of Defense, said that only “a couple dozen out of nearly ten million security clearances” have been revoked because the member was seeking professional mental help. By examining this data, he reassures us, “are we going to kick you out for having a mental health condition? Probably not.” In September 2020, the Joint Staff published the interview with General Hyten in which he opens up about his use of counseling services: “I sought help when I needed it. When I was commander of U.S. Strategic Command, I felt like I needed to get some help. I felt like I needed to talk to somebody. So, I got an appointment with a psychiatrist.” These sessions apparently had no adverse impact to General Hyten’s career, as he subsequently rose to be the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in September 2019.
While General Hyten’s interview may have inspired some, removing the stigma from mental health is an all-hands leadership evolution. It is commendable that senior leaders have begun opening up about their experienced benefits from mental health services; however, the charge now falls to midgrade officers and senior enlisted to do the same. These leaders have more frequent touchpoints with junior officers and junior enlisted, can better relate how they have benefitted from these services and normalize discussions of mental health. When this happens across all ranks, sailors can take care of each other and encourage their distressed shipmates to seek therapy. Sailors should be open-minded about seeking mental health resources to help themselves grow, as fear of phantom consequences can impede progress.2 These conversations will be difficult and uncomfortable, as they may involve diving into deeply personal issues and trauma while respecting differences in rank.
The Navy holds a core belief that people are its greatest asset. This fundamental principle has been championed by leaders such as former Secretary of the Navy Richard Spencer as well as the late Captain Wayne Hughes. In Fleet Tactics and Naval Operations, Hughes argues that the most important qualities in a leader are will and endurance, as well as the ability to inspire these traits to those under their charge.3 To inspire mental endurance in sailors, the service must remove the stigma surrounding mental health, and leaders must be an example. This will be an exercise in humility—after all, if leaders are timid about their experiences in using mental health resources, how can they expect those in their charge to be motivated to do the same? Granted, many leaders do not require mental health services, and sailors are smart enough to see through a counseling session done just for show. Leaders must have the courage to use these resources when they need them and be open about those genuine experiences to relate at a human level. Leaders are certainly entitled to keep the most sensitive details private, but the end state is to make a potentially troubled shipmate feel comfortable seeking mental health resources.
Removing this stigma will bring both immediate and long-term benefits to the Navy. Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz said that a well-balanced mind is essential to strength of character, and removing the stigma of mental health will empower sailors to be their best selves, which will directly translate in their work.4 “If you’re struggling with [mental illness], you’re not firing on all cylinders,” says Senior Chief James Hatch, a retired Navy SEAL. “If we don’t work out physically, we don’t have a lot of stamina on the [field].” He continues, “To operate at a high level, you have to be mentally okay.”
A resilient mind is necessary in times of conflict. Clausewitz claimed that preserving a steady “equilibrium of the mind” is important to winning wars. “A brave attack, a soul-stirring hurrah, is the work of a few moments, whilst a brave contest on the battlefield is the work of a day, and a campaign the work of a year.”5 We must fortify our minds with healthy and sustainable coping mechanisms for the stresses we are bound to face in this profession of arms. If sailors can barely hold it together for peacetime operations, they will struggle when bullets and missiles start flying, which will result in dire consequences.
The mental health of sailors is a top priority. The nation entrusts the military with its daughters and sons, sisters and brothers, and mothers and fathers. As military leaders, we are charged with looking out for their well-being, both physically and mentally. We owe it to those families to return their sailors in as good a condition as we possibly we can at the end of their military service. There are some burdens sailors will try to keep to themselves, and intrusive leadership can only get so far. Let us lead our sailors into taking charge of their mental well-being, unafraid to seek help and resources as necessary, to build the best Navy team our nation deserves.
1. Nassim Nicholas Talib, Anitfragile: Things That Gain from Disorder (New York: Random House, 2014), 76.
2. J. P. London, Character: The Ultimate Success Factor (Jacksonville, FL: Fortis, 2013), 102.
3. CAPT Wayne Hughes, USN (Ret.) and Robert Girrier, Fleet Tactics and Naval Operations 3rd Edition (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2018),18.
4. Carl von Clausewitz, On War (London, UK: Penguin Books, 1982), 151.
5. Clausewitz, On War, 149.