Trigger warning: this post discusses suicide.
From its inception, the Strayboar Project has used artistic expression to mend mental wounds, to accept physical wounds and to bring balance to lives lacking purpose. I don’t think we’ve openly stated on this platform that all three of us have been 3B medically released from the Canadian Forces. All three of us have been through the medical system’s response to trauma for a combined 28 years, and it's given us some insight.
We’ve all received slightly different approaches to healing, but let's talk about some similarities. From the moment a diagnosis of operational stress, or post traumatic stress was received, an immediate prescription of sedatives and/or antidepressants was prescribed. A five medication prescription cocktail intended to neutralize or counteract nature's response to danger. Couple that with a multi-stage administrative verification system, ie. nurse practitioner, psychiatrist and then psychologist, to legitimize your disorder. This scrutiny can be annoying, at best, or an outright deterrent to finding treatment at all.
I’m speaking as an infanteer because it's the training system that I best know and understand. But through the Strayboar Project, we’ve been in contact with multiple people employed in high-intensity jobs within the public service. All agree that they must modulate their response to stress in order to maintain control of high stress situations. If we can’t modulate our emotions any longer, we can’t do the job effectively anymore; this has been baked right into the selection manual. The people most resistant to failure are the people selected for these positions. The paradox being, how do we assure support for a group of people who've been conditioned not to ask for it?
We don’t pretend to think there is any one solution to this dilemma, but we do believe that the entire healing process begins with normalization. Physical pain has been normalized, it's acceptable to have physical pain. We deal with our physical pain through regular physio, massage, adequate rest, diet and medication if required. We all too often ignore mental pain. Mental pain is tossed into the back of the closet and ignored. So few have been taught to deal with mental injury in a healthy way.
Family members and friends closest to the victims of suicide always say, “I had no idea that there was a problem, they were so proud of what they were doing.” Let me tell you, if we can conceal mental injuries from the people we spend our most intimate moments with, we can conceal them from a couple of “check the box” questionnaires that you hastily fill out after an incident or deployment. The answer isn't waiting for someone to make their way to a trauma centre, a place they've sworn themselves never to enter. The answer is normalizing the act of going to that trauma centre before the weight of the injury makes you go out of complete desperation.
Survival. As a society, we need to understand the ability of individuals who occupy rolls of intense stress. The physical and mental fortitude to accomplish tasks that most cannot. Value their contributions, less through showing up at a cenotaph once a year, and more through encouraging them to come to a yoga or meditation class. Encourage the development of an artistic ability. Follow their writing, or music. If you're a leader in one of these organizations, take the lead! Instead of running your people into the ground until they break, show the importance of why it's okay to encourage mental growth and introspection. Mandatory group cohesion meets that hand out free beer to a platoon are popular for sure, but if you're a struggling alcoholic, it's easy to do the math on why this is flawed.
It's no coincidence that almost every first responder that we've interviewed has taken up an artistic endeavour after leaving a unit. Let that sink in... dozens of people interviewed within a wide swath of intense occupations, all of them using art to heal individually. We can understand some taking up an old pastime or hobby, but nearly all? Strayboar wants us all to start healing as a group. It's time to change how we operate.
Let's stop being reactive to mental health, and see if we can get over this obstacle together. If you're a first responder, find other first responders and talk. Connect through an organization in your area, or an online community like ours. If you're an artist, a yoga teacher, a meditation guide, I believe with all my heart that you have the key to open this cage. The walls are burning all around us, and for many it's more acceptable to be consumed by the fire. Please help bring an end to this trend. Let’s start healing together as a community.
Three gents in the midst of shifting gears focused on tenets of adventure, comradery, peace, good food and the pursuit of artistic purpose.