He served honorably, then married, raised children, and had a full life. Like most of the other veterans I knew, he did not talk much about his wartime experiences. Only toward the end of his life did he share some things with me and those were decidedly benign memories.
I always assumed that he and the other veterans had all this bottled-up angst that they silently carried around with them. “Saving Private Ryan“, a great movie about men in war (as opposed to a war movie), and many other films and written works reinforce this idea of repressed emotion.
We have accepted the idea that people who have experienced horrible things should reflect on those experiences to deal with them and move on in a more psychologically healthy way. I, like probably most mental health professionals, was taught to believe and act on this concept as a therapist. The client needs to talk out the pain to heal.
The value of reflecting on what has happened to you is often real and therapeutically valuable, as those who work with battered women or survivors of sexual assault will confirm.
. . . but sometimes it’s not.
Today’s issue of the New York Times includes an article entitled “Sept. 11 Revealed Psychology’s Limits, Review Finds“. You can click on the link to read the entire article, which is fascinating.
TWO IMPORTANT POINTS FROM THE ARTICLE:
1) Making people talk about recent trauma may not be the best approach.
Mental health responders strongly encouraged even reluctant survivors to talk about what they experienced after the 9/11 attacks. The researchers found that while some benefited from this strategy, many others did not and in fact experienced harm from reviewing those painful events so close to their occurrence
However, we should not use these findings as permission to tell someone to “just get over it”. Only the person who has experienced the trauma has the right and the ability to choose that path. Help the person who needs help, but be sensitive to their needs.
Being able to accurately identify when someone is repressing and when someone is coping is a critical mental health skill.
2) People are more resilient than we give them credit for.
The research indicates that most people can experience severe trauma, heal, and resume their lives . . . changed certainly, but not in need of in-depth reflection on the trauma.
This is good news indeed, especially for those of us who have not experienced direct and severe trauma. It is a human thing to doubt our own ability to deal with severe stress, but we apparently come from a long line of people who have done so. I have often wondered if I could be as strong as my father. I feel a tad more confident about that now.
Our grandparents and parents were strong people, and so are most of us.
THE BOTTOM LINE:
. . . Be open, be available, and create an atmosphere of caring.
. . . Listen when someone speaks about their deep pain and help them experience what they choose to experience
. . . Don’t be “pushy” about the need to talk.
Revising my approach in the Heartland . . .