Mark Russell is a retired U.S. Navy Commander, military clinical psychologist and founder of the Institute of War Stress Injuries, Recovery, & Social Justice at Antioch University in Seattle. The nonprofit says it is the only known domestic or international academic entity dedicated to the transformation of military mental health services, support and policy.
I wasn’t clear on my target audience. I was part of a military neuropsychiatry department that was deploying field hospitals during the Iraq invasion in 2003. After we had arrived and built up our field hospital, I was informed that mental health wasn’t even in the blueprints, which was eye-opening.
As a result, we took it upon ourselves to do things like reconditioning (a process used to help facilitate recovery from illness, injury or other medical conditions). We also ended up screening about 97 percent of the people who were evacuated to our hospital for combat stress.
We were thinking outside the box and feeling pretty good about finding our niche, and command actually ended up becoming a big mental-health advocate. Toward the end of our deployment, the highest-ranking military psychiatrist visited our hospital, and we gave him this whole dog-and-pony show about the innovative combat-stress screening program we were using, in hopes of it being replicated elsewhere.
The admiral took it all in and said, “While this is very impressive work, it unfortunately will be forgotten and need to be rediscovered the next time people go to war.” That’s when it kind of hit me: We have a real problem with mental health in general but certainly in the military. And if there’s ever a time to take mental health seriously, it’s during a time of war. We weren’t doing that.
At that point, I started communicating with headquarters, saying we had a shortage of staff and had not received any training on how to treat post-traumatic stress disorder according to our own practice guidelines – really important and obvious things that needed to be corrected in order to avoid a mental-health crisis.
I sent one memo after the next, all the way up to the surgeon general – but never got any corrective action. I next filed a grievance against the military with the Department of Defense inspector general, thinking they would finally listen – but got no response. I then decided to talk to Congress and the members of the Armed Forces directly and do things on my own. None of that panned out.
I spoke out publicly about how we were unprepared to help people with mental-health needs, thinking it would cause a stir in the military, Congress and the public at large. That, too, fell flat. I eventually retired from the military and set up my nonprofit, called the Institute of War Stress Injuries, Recovery, & Social Justice, to try to get the general public informed. I took up a Huffington Post Blog to speak directly to the people; while it got me a general audience, I got no traction there. Nothing has fundamentally changed, in terms of military mental-health care.
I should have worked harder to pursue a collaboration rather than use my voice alone.
Each failure led to a broadening of the intended audience with similar results. I probably should have gone directly to the veterans themselves and their family members, as well as to the hundreds of veterans’ organizations, military organizations and nonprofits. I should have worked harder to pursue a collaboration rather than use my voice alone.
It’s still a work in progress; I’ve since reached out to a law firm in Seattle that’s exploring a class-action suit against the DoD for failing to address mental-health care in the military, and I’ve published an article on class action for the Huffington Post. We define our target audience as being the people most affected by these lapses in mental-health care.
My hope is that the mere threat of class action will be enough to get people in the military or members of Congress interested in making some of the changes I’ve been advocating for. Already I’m seeing signs that this will get more people involved than my previous efforts.
I’ve also been in contact with two [people] – one was in the Army’s Special Forces and another with the Marines – whose voices are important because they were actually deployed in a war zone and developed post-traumatic stress disorder, as a result. My voice alone isn’t going to do it.
Photo courtesy of Mark Russell