Military stoicism, stigma and culture shock: A narrative bridge?

This post follows on from the previous ‘What makes leaving the armed forces different?‘.

Here I argue that while the recent UK armed forces focus on anti-stigma campaigns and resilience training is to be lauded, this could be enhanced by the inclusion of narrative-based counselling during the pre ‘retirement’ resettlement package.

This might reduce any experience of ‘reverse culture shock‘ as military personnel navigate the often challenging transition back into the civilian world.

The nature of military life requires that its people should be mentally and physically robust enough to operate in arduous, extreme and dangerous conditions. That, after all, is what a nation pays and expects its armed forces to do.

However, when illness or injury does arise—and particularly psychological issues—this requirement to be robust means that military personnel are often reluctant to open up and seek help.

Indeed, research demonstrates that this fear usually centres on concerns about how others might react, and whether it might have a negative impact on a career in which robustness is seen as paramount. This is essentially a worry over ‘being viewed as a failure and/or weak’ (Finnegan et al., 2014, p. 89), and the stigma associated with that.

These military traits, often described as ‘stoicism’ (Strom et al., 2012, p. 72), are critical to military mission-accomplishment. But it is also suggested that these same characteristics can prevent military personnel from seeking help in good time. This can either mean that they suffer issues and never seek help, or delay seeking help to the extent that ‘their length of suffering is increased’ (p. 72).

Furthermore, these characteristics are seen to ‘sit at the polar opposite’ (Rafferty et al., 2017, p. 10) of those that might encourage earlier help-seeking, and are exacerbated by being trained and expected to demonstrate self-reliance and self-sufficiency; and ‘being someone on whom others may place their trust, and ultimately, their lives’ (p. 10).

Importantly, and in addressing previous comments and posts regarding military reservists and veterans, research shows this applies not just to the regular armed forces, but to reserve and veteran communities also (Hoge et al., 2004; Osório et al., 2013).  Moreover, as you might have read in my previous post, this ‘institutionalised’ reluctance to seek help can endure for months or years after leaving the military, due to ‘deeply engrained’ (Rafferty et al., 2017, p. 10) attitudes.

Highlighting this, the UK Goverment-commssioned ‘Veterans’ Transition Review’ of 2014 assesses that those veterans that might need support, are uneasy about accessing it as they view ‘themselves as self-reliant individuals’ who have ‘endured serious hardships on operations’ and have the ‘feeling that others must be in greater need than them’ (p. 130; see also Herrity et al., 2011). For some, they simply ‘don’t want to take out of the pot when there’s guys who have lost arms and legs’ (Ashcroft, 2014, p. 130).

Accordingly, there has been much research, debate and concern over this recently. Like me, ex-soldier David Walker recognises that there is a need for the military to maintain levels of fitness and self-discipline, so its personnel can be fighting-fit when necessary. But where there is genuine illness, the military can often appear poor at differentiating between authentic need and ‘malingering’ (Walker, 2010, p. 273).

That culture, and perhaps a Service person’s own personality—bolstered by their training and the environment in which they exist—often conspire against them seeking effective, early, or indeed any intervention at all when experiencing physical or psychological illness/injury. The former can often cause or exacerbate the latter, and this, particularly, can have an adverse effect not just on the individual concerned, but often also on those closest to them.

In the UK context, the launch of the ‘Defence People Mental Health and Wellbeing Strategy 2017-2022’ is a welcome recognition and attempt to ‘improve the mental health and wellbeing of our Armed Forces, their families, [and] veterans’ (p. 3).

As well as a focus on serving personnel and veterans, the broadening of this to include their families is especially encouraging, particularly as I found the support of my own family to be crucial in terms of my transitionary challenges.  This aspect is seemingly recognised by Rafferty et al. (2017) in their report entitled ‘Stigma and barriers to care in service leavers with mental health problems‘, who offer the view that ‘dependents and partners […] should be involved in mental health initiatives, so that they can help […] identify a mental health problem, and also be supported with their own mental health’ (p. 6).

What is of even greater encouragement to me—and certainly based on my own experience—is that this recent UK Ministry of Defence (MOD) strategy has launched anti-stigma campaigns to encourage improved help-seeking among its military community.  This includes the establishment of a telephone helpline for those concerned about their own or others’ mental health.

Additionally, it signals the introduction of ‘resilience training’, which is vital in my estimation. Indeed, if not already included, I recommend this should form part of UK armed forces resettlement package, as this might enable Service leavers to better tackle the potential ‘reverse culture shock’ of re-entry into civilian life (as outlined in my previous post).

In my experience—and I have no reason to doubt this has changed—the primary focus of current resettlement provision is on securing post-military employment (Jolly, 1996).  This is absolutely right, as acquiring a civilian job is likely to be an issue of survival for many Service leavers and veterans (Lent and Brown, 2013; Jolly, 1996). However, I believe there is a way of dovetailing this job-seeking focus with the ‘resilience‘ training. Often (if not nearly always), securing the ‘right’ job can greatly reduce stress, where the ‘wrong’ job can greatly increase it (Jolly, 1996).

This is because ‘work may be […] a way to structure one’s time and construct personal meaning in an otherwise meaningless universe’ (Lent and Brown, 2013, p. 5), no matter how important the financial aspect is.  Thus, its significance can spill over into how happy, fulfilled, valued and worthwhile veterans feel in their return to civilian life, as emphasised in my previous post.

Scholars of ‘career counselling’ contend that effective interventions, for example during resettlement training, can increase and develop future resilience across the board, and—crucially—by increasing the chances of securing the ‘right’ job in support of that.  This is derived by developing a more positive self-concept (among other attributes) based on creating an appropriate ‘career narrative’, founded on an exploration of past and present life history, and with the support of a counsellor or a coach, and applying that to a potentially much more successful job acquisition process (Reid, 2016).

I sense that current support does not take the approach that Reid advocates, and this is where, in my view, attention needs to be focused in order to magnify the efficacy of current resettlement provision.

My point is that with effective careers ‘counselling’ and/or ‘coaching’, practitioners can support Service leavers and veterans in achieving sufficient depth and analysis to achieve their own aims, and similarly equip them to continue to develop and apply this in the future, thereby (hopefully) creating sufficient ‘future-proof’ resilience in tandem with that. This resilience might just make the potential ‘reverse culture shock‘ of re-entering civilian life more manageable, by increasing satisfaction—via that crucial sense of value and worth—in both a civilian career and life.

It is therefore this genre of effective and narrative counselling and coaching that I advocate the UK MOD offer it Service leavers, and I also recommend it to the charities that support veterans also.  It has certainly worked for me, but it has taken me seven years and a doctoral programme to begin to achieve that, as this was not part of my resettlement training.  With the right help, it does not need to take that long or be that involved.

I will be developing this concept in future posts, but in the meantime, if you have any reaction to this, please do feedback in the reply section below.

This research and website is entirely self-funded.  If you think you might be able to help support that, please do click here.

© Graham Cable

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