Editor’s Note: This is the third in a three-part series of articles designed to generate awareness and provide resources for people suffering from Seasonal affective disorder and depression.
Fifty-four-year-old Glenn Davis is not an official spokesperson for the Washington, D.C., Veterans Affairs Medical Center, but he is a current patient with a cautionary tale for Marines and Soldiers: Get help.
A former member of the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, he told the Pentagram he suffered from depression throughout his military career, and claims due to social pressure and stigmas he wasn’t “man enough” to seek professional help.
“I didn’t originally reach out to someone for help,” Davis said. “I was self-medicating—drugs, alcohol—and then it affected me to a point, and I would hate for someone to go through what I went through.”
Separated from active-duty in the late 80’s, Davis said he was a young veteran battling two demons: a new unfulfilling civilian career and an old mental health disorder.
“I was a good Soldier,” Davis said. “But I developed a mental problem and knew that I wasn’t the same person that I once was. It brought me down, and eventually my military career ended. I went from driving tanks that were worth $10 million to guarding a convenience store. I missed the camaraderie, responsibility and pride of serving my country.”
Davis said his disastrous path of unfulfilling careers, vices and an untreated mental health disorder eventually led to years behind bars. It wasn’t until 2007, after being released from jail that he sought counseling.
“It’s something that could have been avoided if I would have sought the proper help to begin with,” he said.
For the last eight years, Davis has been enrolled in mental health at the Washington, D.C. VA Medical Center. He visits a primary psychiatrist and steadily attends PTSD classes.
“Take advantage of your benefits,” Davis said. “Self-medicating and trying to deal with it on your own didn’t work for me. I ended up doing years in jail because I wasn’t man enough to say I had a problem.”
Confidentiality barriers and organizational issues
Hesitation to seek help, as illustrated by Davis, is not rare, according to Dr. Elspeth Cameron Ritchie, chief of Mental Health.
“Confidentiality is an enormous issue and many active duty service members do fear going to seek help because they’re worried about the impact on their career,” Ritchie said. “In the vast majority of cases it will not impact their career, especially if they get help early—but there are still some organizational issues.”
For example, certain psychological conditions can adversely affect a person’s ability to do their job, or perform a job that requires a security clearance. These circumstances could prevent service members from wanting to seek help.
But Ritchie also attributes service members’ hesitation to seek help to the current economic climate.
“In this age of a downsizing the military, people want to be able to stay in the military, they want to be able to deploy and they may be worried,” Ritchie said. “It’s very real concerns about confidentiality.”
But Ritchie said confidentiality is relative: Unless a person is a danger to himself or others, or he or she is not fit for duty in relation to performing on the job, then confidentiality should not be problematic.
“You’re right to be somewhat concerned about confidentiality,” Ritchie said. “But if you’re suicidal, it’s better to get the help that you need rather than to hurt yourself.”
She also advises that while the VA offers a Veterans Crisis Line (1-800-273-8255 and Press 1), the nature of the call will determine the outcome.
“If somebody calls and says, ‘I have a loaded shotgun pointed at my chest and I’m going to press the trigger,’ the suicide hotline like other suicide hotlines is going to have a responsibility to try to track you down and prevent the suicide,” she said.
Depression, Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) and the PTSD nexus
Ritchie also advises service members and veterans to be proactive about addressing their current mental state.
For example, an individual with past history of depression—or a past history of suicidal thoughts—is more prone to depression and suicidal thoughts, according to Ritchie. But there are other factors within this nexus.
“Depression is a risk factor for suicide, and to a certain extent Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is as well. What we’re seeing is there’s a real nexus—similarity and overlap—between PTSD and depression.”
Furthermore, research shows PTSD is not only a disorder that affects men and women who served in a combat zone, but can also plague service members who are victims of a sexual assault, natural disasters, and mass casualty events like the terror attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
During the winter, people can suffer from seasonal affective disorder (SAD) due to lack of sunlight and the loneliness some people experience when isolated during the colder months.
According to Ritchie, service members most at risk for depression and seasonal affective disorder are those dealing with circumstantial adjustments, like going from one duty station to another, on leave, or service members separating completely from the military.
Reversing the effects of seasonal affective disorder and depression
A strong military unit where there’s a sense of good unit cohesion and morale is key in reversing the debilitating effects of Seasonal Affective Disorder and depression, to include sad mood, difficulty concentrating, lack of energy/motivation, insomnia, and hypersomnia, according to Ritchie.
Ritchie also advises commanders to pay attention to new personnel transitioning into military units because they may need to seek behavioral help.
“For depression and PTSD there’s a range of treatments available and just talking to somebody may relieve some of the angsts,” Ritchie said. “But if you’re really depressed or have PTSD, you’ll need to be in one of the recognized treatments.”
Treatments include behavioral health referrals provided by active duty providers, Military OneSource and community organizations like “Give An Hour,” a D.C.-metro based nonprofit that offers counseling for depression, PTSD, substance abuse and sexual health counseling, Ritchie said.
Active duty personnel are not eligible to come to the VA hospital directly for routine outpatient counseling—they can only come in for emergency care, said Ritchie.
Now receiving medical treatment, Glenn Davis is more optimistic about his own future. But he’s skeptical that those still in uniform are seeking needed help for dealing with behavioral, emotional, and mental issues. He said he encourages veterans and service members alike to seek help and to remember that they don’t have to face problems alone.
“If you think your problem is so isolated—that nobody else is going through or feels what you do—just seek help and you’ll find out that there are other people like you,” Davis said.
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Pentagram Staff Writer Arthur Mondale can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.