Mental Health and the Brain: Working Group, June 29th
Thoughts welcomed in the on-line forum below.
A Chance for Clues to Brain Injury in Combat Blasts (NYT), Troubled Minds and Purple Hearts (NYT), Intro to Odysseus in America by Johnathon Shay
The military recently decided not to award the Purple Heart to soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result of their service. Historically, the Purple Heart has only been award to those suffering non-treatable, "physical injuries". The issue is very contentious; some people argue that the medal should be reserved for "bloody and undeniable" and "concrete and uncomplicated" circumstances. Others are disappointed that PTSD is not recognized because as many as 1/3 of soldiers experience symptoms. Is there a distinction between physical injuries and PTSD that’s worth preserving? Or should the distinction be done away with, and the Purple Heart be awarded for PTSD?
One source of concern may be that the military is distinguishing between physical and mental injuries. Post-mortem brain analyses of soldiers has shown considerable brain damage, which looks a lot like brain injuries linked to cognitive decline, stress, and depression in football players. From this it follows that these "mental states"—stress, depression, etc.—can be explained by physical damage in the brain. Why make a distinction between losing a limb and injury to the brain? Still, not everyone understands or attributes significance to brain research.
A discussion about the nature of physical injury arose, and one participant posed the question, Does a physical injury have a "storyteller" component?—that is, is the conscious mind directly affected by, say, a broken leg? Perhaps not as much as a "mental injury/disorder". A physician treating a broken leg would not need to inquire into the relationship between the conscious and unconscious, as a psychotherapist might. But, is the distinction really that one injury is superior (physical injury) to another inferior one (PTSD, brain injury)? One participant added that she would be inclined to create a new medal for PTSD and brain injury, and possible even consider these injuries nobler than physical injuries.
Another participant suggested that maybe the military is just trying to avoid the complexities of defining and thus acknowledging PTSD and brain injury. Someone suggested that the concept of "blame" might be significant. Most people might consider that a soldier who has lost his leg is not to blame—enemy fire is responsible. Who would you blame for a soldier developing PTSD? Is the condition due to a personality flaw or weakness? The military trains soldiers to put mind over matter: to walk and run longer, to survive with less nourishment, to act quickly, and so on; basically, to survive under extreme circumstances. Does PTSD not fit into this perspective? After you’ve trained a soldier, it may be hard to acknowledge something "invisible" from the outside that can’t be measured, some "imperfection" that might incline someone to develop PTSD. Service men are thought of as perfectible, and so maybe the logic is that a medal cannot be awarded for something attributed to an internal failing or the non-perfectibility of a human being. Acknowledging the imperfectability of individuals would put the entire enterprise of the military into doubt. The military wants to award above-human behavior.
The discussion turned to the broader possibility that the military is a simple reflection of culture. Do we as a culture want to reward some behavior and not others? Do we want people to act in predictable ways? Do people want/need incentives for things? If every injury in the military were awarded there would be less of an incentive to put oneself in harm’s way. Furthermore, the military wants soldiers to act in predictable ways—to take risks for the greater good. Rewarding certain behaviors and not others is a way of socializing people, both in the military and in a broader, cultural sense. Can we escape the tendency to socialize people? Maybe if we want to change the military, we first need to change the culture. How do we change the culture? By first changing ourselves. But would individuals be willing to do this? Everyday we act in ways that reward some behaviors and discourage others. One discussant offered an example: If someone walking down the street passes someone in shabby clothing, who is talking to himself, and looks like he hasn’t cut his hair or nails in months, most people who not engage him in conversation; thus, society is discouraging this type of "behavior". Maybe we want and need people to be predictable. Would you rather have someone be less predictable when they’re driving? Would you rather political leaders be less predictable? And so on. Maybe then, one can’t disapprove of the military because individuals act in essentially the same way everyday.
In summary, the discussion arrived at the possibility that the question of who deserves a Purple Heart is not based on a distinction between the mental and the physical. This argument is a stand-in for the general inclination to socialize people and award certain behaviors and not others. Culture is faced with three types of behavior: "good" behavior that is rewarded; "bad" behavior that is punishable; and "unknown" behavior that is not understood. These are then separated into two categories, rewarded behavior and punishable behavior; the unknown defaults into punishable: