The Mental Health Problem Plaguing Male Soldiers

The Mental Health Problem Plaguing Male Soldiers

After shoulders shed their uniforms, they may struggle to reintegrate as civilians — a difficulty that spills over into all aspects of life. (Stocksy)

When soldiers come home from war, there’s a week, maybe two, of total euphoria as they reconnect with family and friends, making up for lost time. But, “then real life sets in,” says Sarah Brunskill, who researches social transitions among soldiers. 

“There’s a sense of disconnection,” Brunskill explains. “The wife or family thinks they’re getting the same guy back.” But when loved ones realize the returning soldier is somehow changed, more distant, “there’s a sense of blaming or guilt, of ‘Why can’t we fix that?’” she says.

This difficulty transitioning back to civilian life is considered a normal part of the process, yet for some soldiers, the reintegration period never progresses beyond this phase. It’s what Brunskill and a team of researchers, including Philip Zimbardo, head of the notorious 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment, call “social intensity syndrome,” a growing problem they describe in the January 2015 edition of the journal Personality and Individual Differences.

At the root of social intensity syndrome, or SIS, is military culture itself, which socializes young men in ways that prepare them for combat but make readjusting to civilian life a challenge. “In boot camp, they break you down and build you back up,” Brunskill says. “They create their own culture of norms.”

Related: How a Double-Amputee War Vet Landed on the Cover of Men’s Health

It’s what some have called a “warrior culture” or a “cult of masculinity” — an environment that deemphasizes emotion and the individual, instead focusing on bonding as a group, forming a brotherhood steeped in self-sacrifice, according to a study in the journal Social Science Medicine.

This mentality is effective, even essential, for life in a war zone. The problem? It’s an identity not easily shed upon a soldier’s return. As the researchers write in the Personality and Individual Differences study, “the socialization and situational pressures that transform ordinary men into servicemen follows them beyond their service and into their civilian lives, which may cause problems for those who cannot completely readjust to civilian culture.” Civilian jobs may seem boring; everyday interactions, unbearable.

SIS is giving a name to this struggle. Hallmarks of the syndrome include a strong need to be around other men (often to the exclusion of women), isolating oneself from civilians, poor bonding with family, and participating in high-risk activities. “They’re drawn toward male-dominated things,” says Brunskill. “And they have a sense of nostalgia, of wanting to go back — remembering all the good times in the military and forgetting the bad times.”

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For returning troops, the joy of reunion may be quickly replaced by a sense of disconnection. (Marc Piscotty/Stringer/Getty Images)

This may not sound particularly problematic — most guys, even those who aren’t in the military, can relate to the desire for intense male bonding. (Think fantasy football leagues and actual sports teams.) Where SIS becomes worrisome: the soldier’s family life. In the new study, aspects of social intensity syndrome — in particular, the preference for male camaraderie — were associated with violent marital conflict.

“There’s a lot of aggression that comes out of war,” Brunskill says. As a result, when soldiers come home, they often feel misunderstood by their spouse, leading them to emotionally detach. Sometimes that sense of disconnection ends in violent outbursts.

Returning solders may also resort to high-risk behaviors, like drinking excessively, engaging in bar fights, or doing drugs, possibly as a way to cope, but also to re-create the high of the battlefield. “When you have a prolonged, intense experience, such as being in a combat zone, your adrenaline and cortisol levels are heightened,” explains Brunskill. “When you come down from that, you’re back to normal levels, and it’s as if you’re [experiencing] withdrawal. So you want to re-create that.”

Related: Military Sexual Assault Reports Rose in 2014

SIS may be especially prevalent among young soldiers, whose only adult experience is in the military. “A lot of the young guys got out of high school and went straight to the military in those formative, emerging adulthood years,” says Brunskill. “They’re coming back with a lot of experiences that most civilians cannot relate to. And then they’re told, ‘All right, you’re a civilian now. Figure it out.’”

“The socialization that occurs in the military to deprogram recruits creates men that will fight and kill for their country,” the researchers write. “Then, little or no training is provided to help them transition back into their civilian roles.”

Although her work has simply put a name to a long-existing problem, Brunskill hopes this will prompt clinicians to create reintegration programs that better suit the needs of returning troops. “[Social intensity syndrome] is still going to happen, because these are biological things,” she says. “But this is helping to explain what’s going on.”

Your Next Read: Preventing Soldier Suicides: A New Development Emerges

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