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Army aims to bolster GIs' mental resiliency

PHILADELPHIA — The Army plans to require that all 1.1 million of its soldiers take intensive training in emotional resiliency, military officials say.

The training, the first of its kind in the military, is meant to improve performance in combat and head off the mental health problems, including depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and suicide, that plague about one-fifth of troops returning from Afghanistan and Iraq.

Active-duty soldiers, reservists and members of the National Guard will receive the training, which will also be available to their family members and to civilian employees.

The new program is to be introduced at two bases in October and phased in gradually throughout the service, starting in basic training. It is modeled on techniques that have been tested mainly in middle schools.

Usually taught in weekly 90-minute classes, the methods seek to defuse or expose common habits of thinking and flawed beliefs that can lead to anger and frustration — for example, the tendency to assume the worst. ("My wife didn't answer the phone; she must be with someone else.")

The Army wants to train 1,500 sergeants by next summer to teach the techniques.

In an interview, Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the Army's chief of staff, said the $117 million program was an effort to transform a military culture that has generally considered talk of emotions to be so much hand-holding, a sign of weakness.

"I'm still not sure that our culture is ready to accept this," Casey said. "That's what I worry about most."

Casey said the mental effects of repeated deployments — rising suicide rates in the Army, mild traumatic brain injuries, post-traumatic stress — had convinced commanders "that we need a program that gives soldiers and their families better ways to cope."

In recent studies, psychologists at Penn and elsewhere have found that the techniques can reduce mental distress in some children and teenagers. But outside experts cautioned that the Army program was more an experiment than a proven solution.

The training is based in part on the ideas of Dr. Aaron Beck and the late Albert Ellis, who found that mentally disputing unexamined thoughts and assumptions often defuses them. It also draws on recent research suggesting that people can manage stress by thinking in terms of their psychological strengths.