13. “He’s just another number, right?”
I’d like to start tonight’s reflection with some cold, hard, and objective data about mental illness in the military. They make for pretty harrowing figures. In any given year, around 5.9% of Australians suffer from depression. For serving members of the Australian Defence Force, this increases to 9.5%, an increase in prevalence of 61%. Similarly, the risk factor for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) rises by 60%, from a base rate of 5.2% in the broader community to 8.3% among serving ADF personnel. For veterans the figures are less clear, but among Australian Vietnam veterans the rates of unspecified depression and PTSD are 9.5% and 17.1%, respectively, comprising a 61% and a whopping 228% increase over the background level. We live, sadly, in a world where stimuli for psychological injury are all around us. In the military in particular, people are put into situations they never should be forced to confront, ordered to do things they should never have to do, and potentially take the life of fellow human beings. Of course that’s going to fuck you up. Human minds come in all kinds – one of the great beauties of human diversity, one I’d have no other way – and the truth is that not all of those minds have the capability to witness genuinely traumatic events and just allow them to pass on by, as urged by the character Earl Coley in another of Tim Willocks’s novels, Green River Rising:
“Walk on by, brother, ’cause there always a reason for it you don’ know about. An’ even if they ain’t no reason at all, it’s not your fucken bidness.”
– Tim Willocks, Green River Rising
I’ve been immensely fortunate, in my third of a century up until now, to never really have witnessed a situation where I had to convince myself that it wasn’t my fucken bidness. And even so, my psyche is still one of those that doesn’t deal well even with minor confrontational scenes either. Watching two of my family members argue is about an even-money chance to make me shut all my emotions down and head into a depressive phase. But even in such circumstances I know it’s not the minor confrontation that’s really the problem, so much as it is that the minor is the last straw, the one feather-light weight that, along with the rest of the emotional load that my mind can’t stop carrying, serves to finally break the camel’s back. Learning how to put down the burden of accumulated experience and pain so that you’re no longer being squashed into the ground under its weight can be one of the great challenges of coming to deal with a mental illness. For me, I’m (slowly) starting to learn how to allow the little straws to bounce off my back, instead of continuing to accumulate in and around the crevices of the load I’m already carrying and weighing me down ever further, but even so I still feel much of the time as though I haven’t yet learned how to put down the bulk of the load. And with PTSD, the load is often unimaginably greater. Have you ever watched M*A*S*H? This is perhaps my favourite TV show of all time – not least because its mix of comedy and high drama helped to get me through the utter blackness of my own worst phase, but also because of its unflinching approach to the depiction of mental illnesses like depression, dissociative identity disorder, and indeed PTSD, illnesses often triggered by the atrocities of war at greatly increased rates I started this reflection by discussing. I can’t imagine how hard it must be to put down a psychological burden like the kinds shown in that series. As Hawkeye himself says: “Nobody forgets what happens here. The secret is learning to live with it. For all of us.” For all of us indeed.