You don’t get it…
There is a common misconception and limiting belief in the military: “If you haven’t served, you wouldn’t know.” And part of the problem is, mental health professionals too often agree and tend to back away slowly, cowering to the overwhelming feeling of incompetence when it comes to treating veterans. But imagine if we succumbed to that pressure when treating clients who have experienced sexual trauma, depression, or anxiety! The truth is, you may not ever really know what it was like to be in combat, but you’re forgetting one very important thing. The service member in front of you is a person. Just like every other person you’ve treated.
If the veteran feels that you’re not making an effort to truly see them beyond the uniform, they’re much less likely to keep coming back. It’s important for mental health professionals to understand that developing an understanding of the military culture goes beyond just learning acronyms and rank structure. Taking the time to learn about who they are can go a long way to establishing legitimacy in the veteran’s eyes. The idea of, “you should trust me because I’m a professional who can help” means much less to a veteran than showing them that you’re interested in the whole person, and not just the identity of their uniform.
Drink some water and rub some dirt on it…
For service members, enduring hardship without complaint is part of their mental conditioning. This mindset remains even after they separate from the service. Suck it up, internalize, keep your opinions to yourself, and keep your mind on the mission. In the military, discipline is essential to maximize motivation and effectiveness. It is quite literally meant to motivate someone to adapt to the expectations or die.
The common belief is “I should be able to handle this on my own.” Service members are taught to lock their personal struggles in a box and to never speak of the box. Ever. Before you can expect to break through this barrier, it’s important to understand that this method of internalization and compartmentalization is how they survive in combat. Moreover, they are then awarded, celebrated, and sometimes promoted in rank for their heroic ability to detach. These literal decorations present themselves in patches and ribbons on their uniform, serving as constant visual reminders of the trauma they endured. It’s no surprise that when they’re sitting across the room from you being asked questions about their trauma and their emotions that you’re met with a blank stare.
Who’s got my six?
Trust is a huge thing for veterans. From the moment a service member is sworn in, trust becomes just as vital as food and water. They’re taught to trust their fellow service members to have their “six” (AKA backs), they’re taught to trust their leadership and their instincts. They have to trust the orders they’re under, and the training they’ve had. They have to trust that their equipment is functional and that their weapons will work when it’s necessary. Trust is all a service member has to rely on when in combat.
To gain a veteran’s trust is not impossible, but it doesn’t come easy. I was once bluntly told “I’m not going to let you screw with my mind before I get to know who you are and what you represent.” Service members have a sixth sense for BS. They don’t need sympathy and a person-centered approach will send them running for the door. In fact, treating service members takes a bit of grit, character, and humility. For a veteran to sit down with a mental health counselor is the ultimate trust fall, placing not just their own life in your hands but often some of the most precious and meaningful things they can think of…the memories of those they’ve trusted in the past.
Authored by Jamie Hall, Psychotherapist and Veteran at Summit's Edge, LLC.
To learn more about how you can better serve the military population, register below for Jamie’s CE