I was reminded the other day of an article my father, Dr. Will Menninger, wrote for The New York Times in 1946, which was based on his experiences as head of psychiatry over the U.S. military during World War II. What struck me was how prescient his observations were about stigma and how relevant his words remain 63 years later.
Stigma of ‘psych’
Headlined “The Promise of Psychiatry,” Dr. Will wrote: “In the Army, we rediscovered the fact that any diagnostic label that had the prefix ‘psych’ meant craziness or insanity to most people. That partly explains why many individuals who need psychiatric help fail to seek it. They know quite well that they are not crazy and they think of the psychiatrist too often as one who sees crazy people.”
While many diagnostic and treatment strides were made during the war, I am troubled that so many of today’s American soldiers are victimized by the same stigma that burdened their WWII brothers- and sisters-in-arms.
About one-fifth of our military returning from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are reporting symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or major depression, and only about half seek treatment, according to a 2008 Rand Corp. study.
That’s an estimated 300,000 people and counting. These individuals are suffering combat-related mental health problems that they do not recognize as illness in themselves. How our returning veterans are responding should give us pause.
While the military is addressing these problems, the efforts are not getting down into the hardcore beliefs of soldiers, where machismo oftentimes masks mental maladies. Turning those beliefs around begins in civilian life.
As Father said in The Times, six decades ago, “ We recognize that if psychiatry is to grow in effectiveness, it must be through the sympathy, the understanding and the demand of the layman…. Only as he becomes acquainted with the principles of mental health can he apply them to himself, his family, his business and the nation.”
We know a great deal more about the brain and behavior since Dr. Will practiced psychiatry, but we still haven’t adopted his advice to make prevention a part of public health programs in every community and every state. Let’s hope blogs like this one can change that.