By Daniel P. Crandall
Chair, PTG Sports Caucus
When the issue is helping wounded warriors, be they veterans or active duty personnel, no solution should be off the table. A recent difference between Admiral William McRaven, leader of the Special Operations Command (SOCOM), and the House Armed Services Committee, unfortunately, is not following this truism. Adm. McRaven sought funding for what might be considered a ‘both/and’ approach to minimize the symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Injuries (PTSI—a designation many prefer over the more commonly known PTSD diagnosis). Legislators, however, declared there is only one method to help veterans at risk and that is the only method they are willing to fund.
On 15 May, the Washington Post reported that Adm. McRaven had requested additional funding “to hire physical therapists, dietitians, sports psychologists and strength and conditioning specialists to work with troops” in order to address the increasing rate of soldier suicides among those involved in special operations, which include Navy SEALs, Army Rangers and Green Beret Special Forces. Men serving in these capacities have a higher suicide rate than those serving in non-special forces capacities. Adm. McRaven and SOCOM believes that building resiliency will make inroads in reducing soldier suicides among those serving in special operations. The Tampa based command believes, in other words, “[a] strong, resilient body will lead to a stronger, more resilient mind.”
Lawmakers, as the Post reported, “think it is a misguided idea.” Instead of spending resources on physical activity and fitness as one method among several to prevent soldier suicides, legislators on the House Armed Services Committee believe the best approach is the traditional emphasis on mental health counselors, psychologists, and psychiatrists.
According to the VA and the National Center for PTSD, several studies have “found that respondents with PTSD were at higher risk for suicide attempts after controlling for physical illness and other mental disorders.” If one could do something that builds a “more resilient mind” in those at risk for this diagnosis wouldn’t that activity be a prudent preventative measure?
According to the Post article, legislators, it seems, want to wait until one is experiencing suicidal thoughts before action is taken. This position of waiting until symptoms appear can be seen in one Congressional staffer comments. The staffer dismisses the positive outcomes that can come from fitness and physical activity, stating that adding these to other methods are
“… not the total solution for someone who is in immediate mental health crisis. They have people with acute, immediate problems that aren’t going to be helped by a lot of physical training.”
These comments miss Adm. McRaven’s point, which strikes me as a preventative approach. Furthermore, the staffers comments show a serious lack of understanding of that which facilitates Post Traumatic Growth. Numerous studies have been done that show the benefits of sports and physical activity in addressing symptoms associated with PTSI.
Adm. McRaven wants to build resiliency among those under his command. He asks us to be open to fitness and physical activity as ways to prevent soldier suicides. Working with physical therapists and sports psychologists may not be the “solution for someone who is in immediate mental health crisis.” They may well be, however, the solution that prevents that crisis from appearing in the first place.
Helping military personnel be more resilient when facing trauma inducing situations seems as common sense as helping someone maintain a healthy lifestyle in order to prevent illness. Adding sports and physical activity to mental health counseling can also be a way to help those facing “acute, immediate problems” such that they never get to the point where they believe suicide is the only solution.