Reconstructing notions of military masculinity can benefit veterans’ mental health and wellbeing, new research reveals

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Breaking down the barriers associated with stoic military masculinity can help boost the health and wellbeing of combat veterans, a Loughborough University study has revealed.

Nick Caddick, Research Associate at the School of Sport, Exercise and Health Sciences, examined how a group of male combat veterans spoke about masculinity and how, following post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), they enacted masculinities in accordance with the values that were acquired during military service.

Nick conducted 24 interviews with 16 veterans[1] over an 18-month period at a veterans’ charity called Surf Action, in Penzance. Aged between 27 and 60 years, the men learned to surf and socialise with other veterans, and this provided them with temporary respite from PTSD symptoms like nightmares, flashbacks, severe depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts.

It is estimated that 6.9 per cent of UK combat soldiers will go on to suffer significant distress as a result of their service.

The results of the study showed the various and sometimes contradictory ways in which ‘masculinity’ shaped the veterans’ lives:

  • Masculine identity as a danger to wellbeing. The veterans had learned to be strong and self-reliant, particularly when it came to dealing with PTSD. This meant they suffered increasing damage to their own mental wellbeing as they sought – sometimes desperately – to maintain the masculine image of themselves as ‘getting on with it’
  • ‘Fighting’ PTSD to boost wellbeing. In a group setting, the meaning of ‘getting on with it’ shifted from denying one’s suffering to actively fighting it and facing it head on, like a man. For the veterans, this was achieved through attending surf camps and residential weeks, talking to other veterans and engaging in meditation and relaxation sessions. Surfing also provided them with an opportunity to enact a positive, proactive version of masculinity in relation to PTSD that was valued by other veterans
  • Banter as a resource for wellbeing. For the veterans in this study, engaging in masculine banter re-established the camaraderie that for many had been the most enjoyable aspect of life in the forces, leading to strong interpersonal bonds – an important source of emotional support and wellbeing. In the context of PTSD, this led to an abandonment of stoic masculinity in favour of closeness and bonding, upholding the veterans’ masculine identities as ‘squaddies’ or ‘lads’
  • Contradictions of help-seeking. When it came to asking for help, the veterans would often force themselves to stoically ‘get on with it’ by themselves, even at a great cost to their own mental wellbeing and that of their partners. This is because they sometimes still remained caught up in the notion of distress as ‘weakness’. But, if help was offered by others to make the veteran ‘face up to his problems’, this assistance was more likely to be accepted, and could even be reconstructed as an affirmation of masculinity.

Nick said: “When I began this study, there was a lot of tension over how and when veterans could overcome the barriers to talking about mental health, particularly when it came to asking others for help. Because of their military background and ‘warrior’ image, these veterans were not used to talking about their problems.

“My research showed that a positive, proactive approach helped the men to tackle the stigma surrounding mental health and encouraged them to take control of the situation. This was particularly true in group storytelling scenarios, where the veterans were not expected to deal with PTSD by themselves. However, even among the supportive environment of the surfing charity, there were times when the dominant response of hiding PTSD still took precedence.

“Overall, the veterans were able to reconstruct the meaning of military masculinities in ways that were a benefit to their mental health and wellbeing.  With this in mind, health workers’ efforts to support and treat veterans with PTSD could be refocused on supporting this positive way of repackaging what it is to be male.”

Nick’s study – Male combat veterans’ narratives of PTSD, masculinity and health – has been published in Sociology of Health and Illness.

A related study – Collective stories and well-being: Using a dialogical narrative approach to understand peer relationships among combat veterans experiencing PTSD – has been published in Journal of Health Psychology. Its findings revealed that peer support proved to be therapeutic to the veterans and helped to normalise and legitimise PTSD-related problems, creating a feeling of acceptance and belonging.

[1] The veterans had served in a range of conflicts from the Falklands and Northern Ireland through to the most recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. While only 10 had been diagnosed with PTSD, all the participants referred to themselves as living with the disorder.

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