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Opinion: PTSD needs a new narrative

May. 31, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
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Jim Mattis is on a mission to change the way America views today’s generation of combat veterans by re-examining the conventional narrative about post traumatic stress and doing more to highlight those who leave the service and succeed.

The revered Marine general, who retired last year as the four-star head of U.S. Central Command, likes to cite a Canadian program called “It’s OK to be OK,” which argues that, too often, the military’s mental health support structure doesn’t do enough to provide and promote positive reinforcement to troops upon their return to civilian society. Doing so plays a crucial role in making the adjustment.

The problem, Mattis argues, stems from the false sense that combat veterans, by nature of their experience in Afghanistan and Iraq, are victims who first and foremost need sympathy. Those who’ve suffered through the worst of these wars may, in fact, require intensive support, he says, but that cannot be the default position for all.

The science supports this notion. A Veterans Affairs study conducted in the 1990s concluded that “premilitary, during military, and postmilitary variables all have strong influences on who develops” post traumatic stress — and that these same variables also influence who maintains it. In other words, if you keep telling a guy he’s broken, he is apt to believe that’s true.

Mattis is right. The approach must become more positive and constructive — and the nation as a whole must buy in.

A system built on sympathy may be well intended, but it runs the risk of doing more harm than good.

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