Callum left the military five years ago after a series of mental health related problems. Here is his story.
Let’s get things straight. Being in any branch of the military isn’t easy. Long days, with late nights and earlier mornings, physical training designed to make you the strongest, fastest you can be, endless drilling to improve discipline, and, especially traumatic, extended periods of waiting (my sergeant’s favourite phrase being ‘hurry up and wait’). It’s no piece of cake, no cup of tea, though there was plenty of that going around, the Army being held together by tea and gaffer tape.
But all of that is fine; anyone, with the right mind-set, will be able to handle it, not easily as such, but eventually.
But even in our modern army, no matter who you are, be you straight, gay, Fijian or Nepalese, male or female, Sikh, Muslim, or even Atheist (shock horror), there is a pervading, overbearing sense of aggressive masculinity. From how they train you, to our conduct in the mess hall, and even to our social interactions in ‘civvie street’, we are taught to ‘man up’, that insults and jokes are fine ways of displaying emotions or affection (though there is no bullying, they won’t tolerate that). And don’t get me wrong, this is in no way gender exclusive; some of my female counterparts were better at this whole manly thing than us men.
See, whilst this bravado, this means of building a camaraderie, the whole ‘I’ll stick with my friends, and I can insult them, but if you do I’ll whack you one’ mentality, is great for building confident, trustworthy and disciplined soldiers, it does little to deal with one huge problem. Mental health. Especially the insidious dark cloud that is depression.
Depression affects almost twenty five percent of veterans, with more than that number suffering in silence, unwilling or unable to talk about their mental health issues.
It’s odd, however; the military offers many ‘safety nets’, from the kindly old women at the NAAFI, to the military chaplaincy on base (my favourite of which being a wonderfully camp padre who pretended to discuss religion with us, until the sergeants left, where we would then watch Terminator or Ali G).
No, the army is at least prepared. There is no ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy – they want us to tell, at which point they’ll ask.
My own depression hit suddenly and severely, effectively halted my life. A back related injury had put me out of synch with the platoon’s physical fitness training, and I was struggling to catch up. When my studies began to falter as well, I had to start the year from scratch. This got me down; as I’m sure you can understand.
But, being a soldier, and a young one at that, I reacted in the way so typical of men, and of soldiers in particular; I turned inwards, and I drank. This only furthered my problems. Sadness became anger, and anger, eventually, led to depression. At my lowest I was suicidal, with two thankfully failed attempts under my belt, until I finally bit the bullet and spoke to someone.
I was more afraid of opening up than I was about anything else; it felt like a weakness, and I was sure I’d be dismissed, ignored or laughed at. And the first doctor was dismissive. He told me I was just sad, and that I’d get over it. I had decided not to tell him about my suicidal thoughts, and he waved me away like a troublesome fly.
This set me back further.
It wasn’t until my second attempt, which made me violently sick, that people began to take notice.
It was a few days after my royal vomiting that I was collared by a sergeant, fatherly concern plastered all over his normally brutish face, and forced to see the officer in command of the platoon. They sat me down, read some paperwork, and asked the question, ‘Are you suicidal?’
I was gobsmacked, and embarrassed; how much did they know? How did they know? (It was only later I found out that a few worried companions and one worried corporal had brought this to the attention of the higher ups).
When the OC heard about the first doctor’s reaction to my plight, he got angry, for which I blamed myself, of course. He was on the phone in seconds, calling the medical centre, and proceeded to ‘grill’ the offending doctor for a good ten minutes. Eventually, he got in contact with his personal doctor, and close friend of his, who agreed to see me then and there.
This doctor was good. Professional yet kind and understanding, he immediately set me on a program that would assist me in getting the help I needed.
And here I am, five years later, writing this, a student at university, with a loving girlfriend, great friends, and a new outlook on life. I left the military after my commanding officers, the doctor, and I agreed that the army was the last place I should be.
Talking about my problems, working out what I needed to do, the changes I had to make, was all worth it. And I know it’s hard, it’s damned near impossible to face up to it (after all, it’s not a broken leg or anything, as I once heard), but that doesn’t detract from what it is; an illness.
No matter what causes depression, or how you deal with it, remember this; the first step is the hardest - admitting that something isn’t right, something that no one else can see, or feel, or maybe even understand - but you have to admit it.