In a recent viral Facebook post, MMA fighter and U.S. Army Green Beret Tim Kennedy wrote that to get over post-traumatic stress disorder you need to “stop being a pussy.” The post set off a vigorous debate as to whether there’s any merit to Kennedy’s tough-love argument, or if he’s simply being insensitive to the countless veterans who suffer from PTSD.
In addition to Task & Purpose, I also run the Headstrong Project, a nonprofit dedicated to providing Iraq and Afghanistan veterans the world-class mental health care they need to recover from hidden wounds, free of charge and without any bureaucracy. So, this should surprise you: I actually agree with Kennedy.
We have a saying at Headstrong: If you have the courage to get help, and you get the right help, you can get your life back on track and live the best version of yourself. Our job is to make sure that you get the right help. We currently do that in New York, Houston, and San Diego. We’ll be expanding to D.C., Chicago, and Los Angeles by the end of the year, and will keep expanding across the country over the next two to three years.
The fact is that folks like Kennedy are lucky. They come home and are able to turn off the flight or fight response. Good for them. But not everyone has the same nervous system. Our head clinician, Gerard Ilaria, brilliantly articulated this in a interview with Humans of New York, which recently profiled a number of veterans who've struggled with mental health issues:
PTSD results from an overactive sympathetic nervous system. It’s the same part of the brain that kept our ancestors alive when lions jumped out of the bushes. It’s ‘fight or flight.’ If a soldier’s mind stays in that mode for too long, it doesn’t always come back. Everyone expects veterans to return to normal when they come back home. The kids are so excited that Daddy’s back. Their spouse wants them to get a good job, and join the rotary, and save for a bigger house. But it’s only the veteran’s body that has returned to safety. Their nervous system is still living in a dangerous place.
In the military, we’re taught that there are two forms of courage: moral and physical. It takes moral courage to get help, and not just when it comes to getting treatment.
If you want to be the best shot on the police force, you find someone who can teach you to shave off hundredths of a second from your draw.
If you want to get stronger at the gym, you find someone who can help you build a better nutrition plan and a workout regimen that will help you achieve your goals.
If you want to be a better husband and father, you look for a better husband and father to be your mentor and role model.
And if you want to overcome military-related health issues, you seek help.
I agree with Kennedy: you do need to put in the work. The veterans we treat will tell you that getting treatment has been one of the toughest things they’ve done. They leave sessions emotionally exhausted. But they come out stronger, more resilient, and better able to give more of themselves to their families, loved ones, and communities.
So if you can’t sleep, or you’re depressed, or you have anxiety and headaches, and even panic attacks, that isn’t the symptom of being a pussy. Not reaching out and getting the help you need is.