David Gee explores the mental health issues of youth recruitment on ‘Armed Forces Day’

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By David Gee

Although not all veterans are severely affected, a military career carries significant mental health risks, particularly at times of war when substantial numbers of psychiatric casualties are usual. Research from the last decade shows that certain mental health-related problems in the armed forces, particularly harmful alcohol use and post-deployment violent behaviour, are a serious problem. Those who have left the forces during the last decade show markedly higher rates of a number of mental health-related problems, particularly PTSD and harmful levels of drinking. These issues are of particular concern in relation to ‘Armed Forces Day’, which serves among other things as a recruitment opportunity for the armed forces. But what are the mental health implications for those who enlist, particularly the youngest recruits who are most vulnerable to these risks?

The Origins of Mental Health Problems within the Military

Armed forces personnel are controlled from the moment they turn up for training, which steadily turns young civilians into operationally effective combatants by inculcating conformity with and obedience to the martial system. Whilst training includes conventional teaching of skills such as field-craft and handling weapons, its main objective is to reinvent how recruits think and behave (Hockey, 1986; Grossman, 2009). Training “breaks you down and then rebuilds you in a different way”, as one veteran has put it (Green et al., 2010). Another described training as operating on two fronts. First, it shapes minds by ‘indoctrinating’ recruits into the ideological values of the military system; and second, it ‘conditions’ behaviours by rewarding obedience and punishing dissent, to the point where all orders are obeyed without question or pause (Gee, 2013, personal communication with veterans).

In 1986, the sociologist and former soldier John Hockey wrote a detailed description of military training, which in large part still stands today. The training regime aims to dispossess recruits of their civilian role and build a new self-image in its place, explains Hockey. The process operates by making absolute demands of recruits which erode self-determination, autonomy of movement, privacy and choice of personal appearance. Required to look and behave the same, recruits are anonymised and controlled. The consequence of relentless activity is fatigue; of the demands of authoritarian power, anxiety; and of the absence of civilian norms and social support, disorientation (Hockey, 1986). Hockey says that this “socialisation under pressure” will “soften” recruits in readiness for the imposition of new personal self-images, values, and definitions of personal achievement.

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Source: Karnacology

Photo: PTSD Action Man': A still from the current film campaign ‘Action Man: Battlefield Casualties

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