The New York Times has a hopeful story about mental health care and the military that still manages to harrow and illustrate the real problems facing our society as a whole when it comes to mental illness. Staff Sgt. Brad Eifert returned from combat tours in Iraq to a life in the US that seemed foreign and aggravating. He had nightmares and panic attacks which he tried to drown in alcohol even as he sought help from the VA that was not particularly forthcoming. “It’s normal,” he says he was told by a psychiatrist. “You’ll get over it.”
That didn’t happen. Instead, he was arrested after a standoff with police where he fired shots. As Erica Goode notes in the Times piece, “such stories often end in death or prison, the veteran in either case lost to the abyss.” But through the almost-magical alignment of many factors—compassionate police, cooperative prosecutors, a forward-looking judge and an amenable military bureaucracy—and a new push to keep veterans with mental health issues out of jail, he is neither dead nor incarcerated. Instead, he is completing a rigorous course of therapy. “We’re a long way from this being over,” Eifert’s mentor tells Goode. But “I’ll put my money on Brad getting through this O.K.”
The takeaway here is that in at least one community in America, people are realizing that prison is not a good therapeutic model, and that if the symptoms of some mental illnesses like depression or PTSD are recognized for what they are, we can help people. “You increase public safety, you don’t have a person reoffending,” says the judge who created the first “veteran’s court.” “And hopefully, that person can become functioning and not suffer the invisible wounds of war.” Hopefully, too, we can take this model into the general population, and make a serendipitous fluke a daily reality.