Retired General Gregg Martin breaks down mental health issues and solutions
General Gregg Martin
There are still a few months left, but September is National Suicide Prevention Month, a month in which we shine a light on one of the most misunderstood and stigmatized human experiences.
But I consider each month to be “suicide prevention month” – a call to arms, not in the sense of weapons, but rather in the form of people working together. That said, if we are to take advantage of the opportunity this, and every month, gives us to prevent suicide, we must first understand suicide.
Most suicides result from a combination of two things: a mental health disorder: depression, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTS), traumatic brain injury (TBI), morale damage, survivor guilt, etc. ; and aggravating social factors, such as relationship problems, death of a loved one, loss of job and associated purpose, legal problems or financial difficulties.
Unfortunately, the destructive clash of these forces all too often ends in the death of hope for the sufferer and ends their life at their own hand.
For me, it touches home on a deeply personal level.
Previous posts by General Martin:
Veterans and Depression:Afghanistan war veterans are suffering and committing suicide at a high rate
Bipolar disorder struck me in 2003 when a colonel and brigade commander led thousands of soldiers in the war in Iraq. The intense stress of combat ignited my genetic predisposition to bipolar.
In other words, my DNA was just dry tinder ignited by the battle match.
For 12 months of fighting, I was mostly manic. I had boundless energy and enthusiasm.
Sometimes I felt like Superman and experienced a euphoric high with every mission. But upon redeployment to Germany, the adrenaline, dopamine and endorphins of war wore off, and I fell into a severe depression that lasted 10 months.
I reported my depression to the medical staff, but was told that I was fine because I was not suicidal and did not want to hurt anyone. So, in the end, I was deemed “fit for duty”.
But the reality was that I had just completed my first full cycle of bipolar, with me standing at the peak of mania, then sitting at the low of depression.
Over the next 11 years, I went through increasing extremes of mania and depression until I fell into full-blown acute mania in July 2014. In my most critical state of bipolar disorder, my behavior was so bizarre and disruptive that it undermined my ability to lead effectively.
Ultimately, I was removed from the presidency of National Defense University in Washington DC and ordered a psychiatric evaluation. Three times in the same month, I was diagnosed as psychiatrically healthy and “fit for duty”.
But I was not.
Four months later, I sank into severe depression and psychosis, was diagnosed with Bipolar I Disorder, and sadly retired from active duty.
For the next two years, I fought for my life. A dark, hopeless, crippling depression and terrifying images of my own violent and bloody death filled my mind and dominated my life.
Psychiatrists called these “passive suicidal ideation”, but to me they were anything but passive – they were brutal and a real living color!
In a hellish space of absolute mental illness, I was blessed to have both my wife and my family by my side. In time, a close friend helped me get into the VA. There I received excellent care and began a life-saving but grueling road to recovery.
Looking back, I have often wondered how my bipolar was missed for so many years by me, my family, and the military?
After careful consideration, I have come to these conclusions.
First, bipolar and many other forms of mental illness can be difficult to diagnose, even for medical professionals. This stems from the fact that apart from those who practice psychiatric medicine, other physicians are not well trained to identify and recognize mental illness in ordinary citizens, let alone a senior military officer.
Second, family members are like the proverbial frog in a pot of water; slight changes over time are too small and gradual to attract attention or alarm.
Third, given the prevalence of stigma and a constant amount of misinformation, when someone witnesses another person with a mental illness, they are often reluctant to confront or report it.
To change course and move towards a brighter and better future for people with mental illness, necessary countermeasures to the current environment and resulting crisis should include:
1. Train people to recognize the main symptoms of the most common mental illnesses. As part of the same training, empower them to refer the service member to a medical professional when they feel there is a problem.
2. Develop “safe” communication channels for reporting issues in a way that eliminates the need to record said communication in official documents.
3. Expand the notion of “combat mate” to include peer counselling.
4. Implore senior managers to have a confidant who can say “anything” to their boss, including how others see their behavior, the overall state of the unit, what people think and say, all without the senior manager getting upset or angry. punish the confidant.
5. Create a campaign, much like the one used to defeat a more traditional enemy, that targets the stigma as the villain to be defeated. Include in such a campaign an educational component that illustrates that mental health disorders, like other diseases, such as cancer or diabetes, are not the choice or the fault of the person affected and that there is no nothing to be embarrassed or ashamed of.
Although I never went from passive suicidal ideation to active ideation and actual suicide, I was in danger of committing suicide. I’m sharing my story here in part to paint a picture of how someone with a similar disorder, left unchecked, might take this dark walk to end their life.
Mental health disorders are complex illnesses that result from the simultaneous presence of many factors. Therefore, they are beyond the domain or control of the sufferer and are not indicative of a character flaw or lack of will.
If we want to be successful in our mission, we must come together to change the perception of a person who has a mental illness. We need to see them through the same lens that we see a woman battling breast cancer or a man struggling to overcome chronic heart disease.
And, we will know that we stand on the same ground of inclusion when the survivor of a suicide attempt and the person living with bipolar disorder are offered care, respect and understanding, freely and wholeheartedly.
Check yourself and your friends. If there are warning signs, see a doctor immediately. It could be a matter of life or death.
Be a leader and spread the word. Help end stigma, prevent suicides and save lives!
Gregg Martin, PhD, is a 36-year-old Army veteran, retired major general (2 stars), and bipolar survivor. A former president of the National Defense University, he is an Airborne-Ranger qualified engineer and strategist with degrees from West Point and MIT. He has led organizations ranging from a platoon of 30 soldiers to a major base of 30,000 military and civilians. A strong advocate for mental health, he lives in Cocoa Beach, where he is writing a book about his experiences: “Bipolar Warrior – a general’s ‘forever war’ with mental disease. For more information visit www.generalgreggmartin.com
With the help of David Woods Bartley, renowned TED speaker and global mental health educator, who has given over 500 presentations worldwide.
These views are those of the author, and not necessarily the official position of the DOD or the US government, or the USA TODAY Network.