bloody well cry mate

A few years ago, I found myself in a deep hug situation with a senior military leader. So reluctant to receive some human comfort he moved abruptly as I approached resulting in me manifesting a deeper sign of affection than I had originally intended. Awkward.


I was running a course about managing working life, for senior officers about to leave the armed forces. Returning to the familiar rolling hills surrounding the MOD centre in Shrivenham, my stomach churned at the prospect of being silenced by their stiff upper lips. Having grown up in rural Gloucestershire in between two American air bases I carried with me a certain degree of prejudice about this parallel universe where the families of soldiers are live in prefab housing and asking why we’re storing nuclear weapons will get you chucked out of any pub in the Carterton area.


Don’t mention the wars.


In the military the family set up is, well, deeply dysfunctional. Ten years of active service, recently merged and on a budget that requires replacing the 40,000 soldiers who have so far lost their jobs with volunteers. The military world gets divided into allies and enemies and a deep gang-like orientation towards the outside world reins. A pretty toxic situation affecting not just the ever shrinking number of military personnel but also the tens of thousands of people trying to deliver care and services to them.


Rather than engage in primal screaming or a group hug, people in the military will be tempted to somatize their problems. Easier to go to the doctor with a sporting injury because you’ve been in the gym for the 4th time that day, than open up about PTSD symptoms that stop you being able to sleep at night.


Mental health in the military is a deeply contested domain with growing research on the damage that can be done by treatments that oversimplify human pain, such as the USA’s Complete Soldier Fitness programme, and leave traumatised people with the fallout from a failure to recover. Although alternative mental health models exist, particularly for veterans, the reality is that a mental health system based on getting people back to the front line will be tempted to treat them according to rank and number.  A model of resilience that buries how we actually feel.


This dynamic presents medical staff in the military with an almost impossible dilemma – how to help people get in touch with their feelings enough not end in violent breakdown but desensitise them sufficiently so that they can get back to work.


Expressing your emotions on the Workplace Front Line is not generally considered a good look but within certain therapeutic traditions its actively encouraged. Before you go off on one about how therapists live in a North London bunker I’m going to tell you something about the blood n guts of the psychoanalytic tradition.


One of the most important periods of therapeutic development took place at Northfield military hospital, during the second world war. This work was described as an experiment in psychiatry. How to get deeply traumatised men back to war.  In a time when men didn’t cry and women wore gloves they didn’t know what to do. In the face of despair across class lines, the treatment was often of the pull-yourself-together variety, where treatment such as electric shocks and solitary confinement served as torture for men who needed their experiences of war to be understood.


At Northfields, a small team of psychoanalytically minded psychiatrists – Bion, Rickman, Foulkes and others developed new ways to help men overcome what we would now call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). They collectively created a profound tradition of therapeutic practice which allowed soldiers to face up to their psychic realities – involving group discussions and free expression cutting against every social and psychic tradition of the time.


This was frustrating work, to overcome trans-generational conditioning about showing emotions and a psychic dress code of profound repression. It led to the somewhat ironic techniques of compulsory mourning, with a key figure Major Bridger an artillery officer working at Northfields ordering  soldiers to  “bloody well cry mate”.


This experiment created a framework for working with traumatised people and groups that put the social back into mental health. A precursor to therapeutic communities, as well as informing a generation of organisational consultants, the project they started involved creating safe places to understand the reality of conflict and ways of collectively dealing with it.


Showing how we really feel doesn’t get much easier, so sometimes surviving work means taking orders. If you’re working on the front line today do yourself the kindness of making some emotional contact with another civilian at work. And do not pull yourself together until you have had a bloody good cry, mate.

Leave a Reply