Destigmatizing mental health care for discharged IDF soldiers

On January 25th, Bell Canada kicks off its “Let’s Talk” initiative to destigmatize mental illness. Historically, and until recently, mental health issues were regarded very differently than physical ailments. Society is sympathetic and accepting of those who have visible illnesses, however those who are struggling with mental health issues tend to be perceived as weak and lacking resilience. If someone is brave enough to seek help for issues like depression, anxiety, bipolar and eating disorders, substance abuse and ptsd, they are often told to “snap out of it “and that it is, ironically, “all in their head”.

Negative attitudes towards those who are struggling with mental health issues result in feelings of shame, disgrace and inadequacy, which prevent many people from seeking therapeutic interventions that they require. It is difficult for those who are suffering to find the courage to accept help and even more so for those in the military.

A soldier is expected to be strong mentally and physically. If a person chooses to enlist, then surely he/she understands the risks and perils that enlistment entails. The rationale is that a soldier knows that he/she could experience difficult battle situations and, therefore, should be prepared. Even those who are conscripted into the army like the young men and women of the IDF are expected, as well trained warriors who are equipped with the knowledge of, and proficient in, the art of war, to move on with their lives after traumatic experiences. It is a due to these presumptions and misconceptions that many IDF soldiers and discharged soldiers are unwilling to seek or receive treatment and thus suffer in silence. Furthermore, important factors that prevent Israeli soldiers from seeking care is concerns over maintaining their careers in the military, disapproval on a cultural level and a reluctance to be medicated.

It is this systemic disapproval that makes interventions such as the Peace of Mind program critical to the well-being of Israel’s discharged combat soldiers. It allows those who participate in this initiative to discuss traumatic experiences in a safe environment, surrounded by those who fought along with them during the battle. Participants are able to unburden themselves and confront, amongst other things, feelings of survivor’s guilt, sadness and stress. Additionally, they receive coping mechanisms that can be implemented in daily life and during their reserve duty. The outcome is extraordinary and life changing for the vast majority of the men and women who participate in the program. Other discharged soldiers who are also suffering from their emotional/psychological battle wounds learn about the benefits of the program from past participants, and this word of mouth affirmation paves the way for more combat units to come forward.

Cultural and societal attitudes with regard to mental illness must change so that those who are shouldering the burden of wartime experiences are able to speak up without fear of reprisals, judgment and negative labels. Programs and initiatives that de stigmatize mental health issues is a vital step towards giving those voices that have been silenced far too long, an opportunity to be heard. Let’s talk.

About the Author
Felicia Gopin is Executive Director of Peace of Mind Canada, an organization that is dedicated to facilitating emotional and psychological support for discharged IDF elite combat soldiers who have undergone difficult battle situations. Units of approximately 15-20 young men participate in the POM program in Canada for one week of intensive group therapy and bonding with the Jewish community. This unique 9- month long process includes orientation and concluding sessions in Israel, 3-month interval follow-ups and individualized therapy for those who require further interventions.
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