Author: Johann Hari
People not pills
Smith was a good kid. A hard worker. Kinda goofy but always good natured. So when my work phone buzzed in the early afternoon on a Saturday and it was Smith, I was surprised. He told me he was going to kill himself and thanked me for being kind to him.
As a commander in the GWOT Army, I had a checklist for this phone call. When a Soldier acts a certain way or says just the right words, and the checklist told me exactly which doctor to call, which hospital I could send him to, and how long we needed to wait before we could start a chapter to process the soldier out.
Nowhere in the checklist was – “ask Soldier what’s going on.”
And that is how, so many young men and women came through my hanger with bottles of pills, appointments with psychologists, and finally – chapters out. As the commander, I was part of the process that pushed them along, hoping that if we moved just a little faster, we might get a replacement before we deployed.
Johann Hari’s “Lost Connections” was incredibly eye-opening for me. The first part of the book speaks to the history of mental health medication and treatment over the last few decades. Hari describes how being diagnosed with depression at a young age greatly shaped his identity. Later, as he began to question his treatment effectiveness, detachment from his diagnosis left him unbalanced and looking for the true cause of his pain.
Hari’s quest to learn the true cause of depression and anxiety led him to nine breaks in critical connections. These disconnects range from exposure to childhood trauma, an absence of nature, and a loss of meaningful values. Hari then goes on to offer a number of ways to reconnect with what matters most to us.
Connect with others
“Reconnecting with others,” hit home with me thinking about Smith and how we, as a military organization had handled mental health. Most of my Soldiers had made some real bone-head choices. Sure, some Soldiers were struggling with multiple deployments, difficult family situations, and substance abuse. But the vast majority of the kids on pills had just been young and stupid, because that is what young soldiers do. And have done for decades.
So why now, did we punt them to pills and docs rather than our NCOS and leaders. These young men and women needed guidance from older men and women. Mentors. Friends. A sense of belonging and need to live up to a hero. Young Soldiers needed to know the feeling of letting someone down, having regret, finding forgiveness, and striving to not fail again.
Maybe Hari was on to something known by many an old 1SG – these kids need leaders not pills.
Smith didn’t die that day. There is no checklist for that kind of phone call. It is person to person – listening and talking – and praying. Every part of me was praying that he would keep talking a little longer so that the police could get there. Later at the hospital, when I saw Smith, it wasn’t the same goofy kid. Maybe they had him on meds, which is what I like to think, but he was hollow and gone.
I wept that day for so many reasons. Despite saving a life, I knew I had a checklist to follow. It was waiting for me at my desk. The next day, I would be starting his paperwork to leave the Army, his friends, and his support. I would start the process to remove him from the one thing I knew, deep down, he needed most: us.
Smith is a real story and a combination of stories. He is one of many casualties of GWOT that will never be thanked, memorialized, or have books written about. So I am writing it now.