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God in Wartime: How Religious Belief Affects Soldiers
When Shoshana Johnson decided to join the military, her intention wasn’t to make history.
When Shoshana Johnson decided to join the military, her intention wasn’t to make history. Originally from Panama, where her Catholic foundation was laid, she and her family moved to the United States when she was a child. Johnson’s passion for food inspired her to attend culinary school. In 1998, the daughter of a retired Army sergeant, she enlisted in the service to save money for school. By 2003, Johnson, who worked as an Army cook, was in Iraq preparing meals for supply mechanics. But within a month of her arrival, she would become America’s first black female Prisoner of War (POW).
The first care package Johnson received after she deployed to the Middle East was from her mother. Inside the box was a rosary. “I remember calling back my mom as we got into Kuwait and saying, ‘Hey, I left my rosary and stuff on the nightstand. Can you send it to me?’” Johnson said from her home in El Paso, Texas. The rosary was inside her rucksack about 200 miles south of Baghdad when on March 23, 2003, a group of Iraqis ambushed the Army specialist’s truck convoy in Nasiriyah.
Johnson was shot in both ankles when she was captured; left behind was the rosary, still inside her rucksack, buried among the rubble and bodies of at least 11 American troops killed in the attack. Johnson and four male soldiers were taken prisoner, and spent 22 days in captivity. It has been 14 years since the former Army cook and other captives became national heroes upon their they return home, yet the psychological wounds, including Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) continue to haunt her. While Johnson’s rosary was left in Iraq following her capture, she continued carrying her religious belief.
The relation between religious belief and trauma became a subject of study for Joseph Currier, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of South Alabama. His research examines the impact of religion, or spirituality, among combat veterans coping with life after war, and tries to understand how they might recover from the invisible scars of war. In a study published in Spirituality in Clinical Practice, Currier and others report “suicide has emerged as a leading cause of death for persons who have served in the United States (US) military. In fact, suicide deaths were more common than combat-related deaths among US military personnel in 2012 and 2013.” The report suggests that in some cases, religious belief can make healing from trauma more difficult. “Certain forms of religiousness do seem to increase risk for suicidality or PTSD after trauma,” Currier said.
Over the course of two years, Currier and his team recruited 125 veterans who had served in either Iraq or Afghanistan and completed “at least one war-zone deployment” to participate in the study. Therapists asked the veterans “to indicate how frequently they engaged in religious methods of coping with respect to the most stressful events of their lifetime.” Half of the study’s participants self-identified as being a “religious person,” and half of that group was affiliated with Christian Protestant organizations, while 40% identified as Roman Catholic.
According to Currier though, religious affiliation or church group denomination isn’t the most important factor in evaluating faith’s impact on mental health: “It’s not enough for us to know that somebody is religious or to know if they affiliate with Christianity or Buddhism, or to know their religious affiliation. What’s most important is that we know how somebody is religious.”
“I left any semblance of God in my life [back] in that fucking God-forsaken country,” says Mike Rudulph, a Marine Corps veteran who served two tours in Iraq. Rudulph did not participate in Currier’s study. “I gave up absolutely all notions or beliefs in any type of God after I saw what happened over there.” Born and raised in Alabama, Rudulph says he says he struggled with his Episcopalian faith as a gay man years before he saw combat. “Obviously, there were segments of the Episcopal Church in other places that embraced homosexuality, like the state who ordained the gay bishop, but at least where I was, it wasn’t there.”
Even after Rudulph’s partner joined the Marine Corps with hopes of being deployed together, the infantry sergeant hid details about his sexuality from his family and military unit. Rudulph was part of a division responsible for securing Iraqi detainees at Al-Taqqadum, an Iraqi air base about 20 miles west of Fallujah. There, his faith was regularly put to the test. How could God condone his war-fighting actions, yet condemn his sexuality? “The only God that I knew, in Alabama, was a God that was going to kick me into the depths of hell.”
In the study, Currier and the other researchers recognize “minimizing the risk for suicide among US military populations has become a major public health priority.” Among the veterans who participated in the study, Currier reports, just over a quarter, “exceeded the threshold of suicide risk.” In some cases, one’s religious or spiritual perceptions actually increased their risk of suicide ideation.
Felicia Hopkins, author of Halfway Home: War Stories that Healed My Life, is a retired Army officer and trauma chaplain who spent a year ministering to wounded service members. She says it’s often guilt that keeps troops from healing. “People [want] absolution,” said Hopkins. “People wanting to know that they’ll be forgiven, people wanting to know that God understood what they had to do … I did my part. Now God needs to do His part. “
“If someone has a very rigidly positive belief system, where they believe that I kind of have this implicit agreement with God that if I just do the right thing most of the time and try and be a really good person and refrain from doing things that are perceived as being immoral, that God is going to 100% protect me from suffering, or adversity in life,” said Currier, “they can go through periods of really high stress, potential trauma, and they’re not going to have any way to make sense of that within that very rigidly positive belief system. So what can then happen is they will then go on to the other side of things and over-accommodate where now God goes from being this all-good, all-powerful being, to now God is perceived as being completely untrustworthy and incompetent.”
Shoshana Johnson leaned on her faith when she tried to make sense of her capture and later her release. “I had this horrible incident, but I got to come home. I got to see my family again” said Johnson. “Other people don’t get that, and plenty of people have done nothing wrong and don’t get that, so I definitely think God has blessed me over and over and over again, and I don’t know why.”
Her interpretation of the Catholic Church’s position on suicide—it is classified as a mortal sin—impacted choices about whether to attempt to take her own life, which resulted in multiple stays at a Texas psychiatric medical center. “I was in the planning stages, and once I was in the hospital, we talked about it, and they were like, ‘Well, why?’ [and] I said, ‘Because I feel like God made a mistake, and then I can correct the mistake,’” Johnson recalled. She did not feel she’d earned the right to safely return home to her daughter and family. “In the Catholic faith, once you take your own life, that’s the ultimate sin, so all the preference [God] has given me will definitely end, at that point.”
Veterans who had a positive or broad perspective regarding the role of religion, or spirituality, in life fared better—those “with ties to formal religious groups” showed fewer signs of PTSD or suicidal thoughts and behavior. Perhaps, says Currier, veterans benefited from the support they found in their church or spiritual groups, not just doctrine. “Community can be crucial in supporting veterans who might be dealing with suicide or PTSD or other common mental health problems,” Currier said.
The study sample does not “mirror active-duty and veteran populations in the US.” Most of the veterans were men, young service members who’d served in either the Army or Marine Corps. But the report may help validate veterans’ requests for mental health providers who will take their religious and spiritual beliefs into consideration as part of their treatment plan. “It’s the only way it’s going to work,” says Johnson, who now gets care from a psychiatrist who also happens to be Catholic. “If you can’t accept my spirituality, how can I unload completely?”
After Shoshana Johnson’s mother reported the loss of her daughter’s rosary in an interview, Johnson said rosaries arrived at her home from all over the world. Instead of a rucksack, Johnson now carries a purse, and nestled inside one of its pockets is a rosary that she was told was blessed by Pope John Paul II.
Christina Brown Fisher is an independent journalist from New York City.
Innovation in manufacturing has crawled since the 1950s. That's about to speed up.
Health officials in China reported that a man was infected with bubonic plague, the infectious disease that caused the Black Death.
- The case was reported in the city of Bayannur, which has issued a level-three plague prevention warning.
- Modern antibiotics can effectively treat bubonic plague, which spreads mainly by fleas.
- Chinese health officials are also monitoring a newly discovered type of swine flu that has the potential to develop into a pandemic virus.
Bacteria under microscope
needpix.com<p>Today, bubonic plague can be treated effectively with antibiotics.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Unlike in the 14th century, we now have an understanding of how this disease is transmitted," Dr. Shanthi Kappagoda, an infectious disease physician at Stanford Health Care, told <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health-news/seriously-dont-worry-about-the-plague#Heres-how-the-plague-spreads" target="_blank">Healthline</a>. "We know how to prevent it — avoid handling sick or dead animals in areas where there is transmission. We are also able to treat patients who are infected with effective antibiotics, and can give antibiotics to people who may have been exposed to the bacteria [and] prevent them [from] getting sick."</p>
This plague patient is displaying a swollen, ruptured inguinal lymph node, or buboe.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention<p>Still, hundreds of people develop bubonic plague every year. In the U.S., a handful of cases occur annually, particularly in New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado, <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/plague/faq/index.html" target="_blank">where habitats allow the bacteria to spread more easily among wild rodent populations</a>. But these cases are very rare, mainly because you need to be in close contact with rodents in order to get infected. And though plague can spread from human to human, this <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health-news/seriously-dont-worry-about-the-plague#Heres-how-the-plague-spreads" target="_blank">only occurs with pneumonic plague</a>, and transmission is also rare.</p>
A new swine flu in China<p>Last week, researchers in China also reported another public health concern: a new virus that has "all the essential hallmarks" of a pandemic virus.<br></p><p>In a paper published in the <a href="https://www.pnas.org/content/early/2020/06/23/1921186117" target="_blank">Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences</a>, researchers say the virus was discovered in pigs in China, and it descended from the H1N1 virus, commonly called "swine flu." That virus was able to transmit from human to human, and it killed an estimated 151,700 to 575,400 people worldwide from 2009 to 2010, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.</p>There's no evidence showing that the new virus can spread from person to person. But the researchers did find that 10 percent of swine workers had been infected by the virus, called G4 reassortant EA H1N1. This level of infectivity raises concerns, because it "greatly enhances the opportunity for virus adaptation in humans and raises concerns for the possible generation of pandemic viruses," the researchers wrote.
A new Harvard study finds that the language you use affects patient outcome.
- A study at Harvard's McLean Hospital claims that using the language of chemical imbalances worsens patient outcomes.
- Though psychiatry has largely abandoned DSM categories, professor Joseph E Davis writes that the field continues to strive for a "brain-based diagnostic system."
- Chemical explanations of mental health appear to benefit pharmaceutical companies far more than patients.
Challenging the Chemical Imbalance Theory of Mental Disorders: Robert Whitaker, Journalist<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="41699c8c2cb2aee9271a36646e0bee7d"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/-8BDC7i8Yyw?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>This is a far cry from Howard Rusk's 1947 NY Times editorial calling for mental healt</p><p>h disorders to be treated similarly to physical disease (such as diabetes and cancer). This mindset—not attributable to Rusk alone; he was merely relaying the psychiatric currency of the time—has dominated the field for decades: mental anguish is a genetic and/or chemical-deficiency disorder that must be treated pharmacologically.</p><p>Even as psychiatry untethered from DSM categories, the field still used chemistry to validate its existence. Psychotherapy, arguably the most efficient means for managing much of our anxiety and depression, is time- and labor-intensive. Counseling requires an empathetic and wizened ear to guide the patient to do the work. Ingesting a pill to do that work for you is more seductive, and easier. As Davis writes, even though the industry abandoned the DSM, it continues to strive for a "brain-based diagnostic system." </p><p>That language has infiltrated public consciousness. The team at McLean surveyed 279 patients seeking acute treatment for depression. As they note, the causes of psychological distress have constantly shifted over the millennia: humoral imbalance in the ancient world; spiritual possession in medieval times; early childhood experiences around the time of Freud; maladaptive thought patterns dominant in the latter half of last century. While the team found that psychosocial explanations remain popular, biogenetic explanations (such as the chemical imbalance theory) are becoming more prominent. </p><p>Interestingly, the 80 people Davis interviewed for his book predominantly relied on biogenetic explanations. Instead of doctors diagnosing patients, as you might expect, they increasingly serve to confirm what patients come in suspecting. Patients arrive at medical offices confident in their self-diagnoses. They believe a pill is the best course of treatment, largely because they saw an advertisement or listened to a friend. Doctors too often oblige without further curiosity as to the reasons for their distress. </p>
Image: Illustration Forest / Shutterstock<p>While medicalizing mental health softens the stigma of depression—if a disorder is inheritable, it was never really your fault—it also disempowers the patient. The team at McLean writes,</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"More recent studies indicate that participants who are told that their depression is caused by a chemical imbalance or genetic abnormality expect to have depression for a longer period, report more depressive symptoms, and feel they have less control over their negative emotions."</p><p>Davis points out the language used by direct-to-consumer advertising prevalent in America. Doctors, media, and advertising agencies converge around common messages, such as everyday blues is a "real medical condition," everyone is susceptible to clinical depression, and drugs correct underlying somatic conditions that you never consciously control. He continues,</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Your inner life and evaluative stance are of marginal, if any, relevance; counseling or psychotherapy aimed at self-insight would serve little purpose." </p><p>The McLean team discovered a similar phenomenon: patients expect little from psychotherapy and a lot from pills. When depression is treated as the result of an internal and immutable essence instead of environmental conditions, behavioral changes are not expected to make much difference. Chemistry rules the popular imagination.</p>
Why Depression Isn't Just a Chemical Imbalance<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="fbc027c9358dad4a6d9e2704fc9ddb04"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/GAC9ODvSxh0?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>Many years ago, my best friend tried to quit smoking. He asked for help. While I'm no addiction expert, I offered what I knew from my fitness toolkit: breathing exercises and cardiovascular training, methods for strengthening his body and mind that could, I hoped, inspire him to take better care of himself in general. He replied, "No, I meant something like a pill."</p><p>A few years later, he quit for good. After failing the cold turkey method a number of times, it finally stuck. Maybe it was watching his children grow up—the reason my parents quit when I was young. This method is not easy, however. It challenges you; it forces you to confront your demons; it drastically affects your brain chemistry. Yet, in the long run, it sometimes works. </p><p>Sometimes pills work, too. But often they do not. The journalist Robert Whitaker, author of "Anatomy of an Epidemic," discussed the clinical trial process <a href="https://bigthink.com/mind-brain/antidepressants-dangers" target="_self">during our recent conversation</a>. While the FDA process appears thorough from the outside, pharmaceutical companies only need to prove that a drug works better than placebo, not that it works for the most amount of people. He continues, </p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Let's say you have a drug that provides a relief of symptoms in 20 percent of people. In placebo, it's 10 percent. How many people in that study do not benefit from the drug? Nine out of 10. How many people are exposed to the adverse effects of the drug? 100 percent."</p><p>Even though some pharmacological interventions show little efficacy, and even though Xanax, an addictive and destructive benzodiazepine that only showed <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5846112/" target="_blank">short-term (four weeks) efficacy</a> in clinical trials, is being prescribed for many months and years, doctors continue to use the language of clinical neuroscience to describe mental health issues. If chemistry is the problem, people will turn to chemistry for the solution. </p><p>Perhaps we should, as psychiatrist Dean Schuyler <a href="https://bigthink.com/surprising-science/antidepressant-effects" target="_self">writes</a> in a 1974 book, recognize that most depressive episodes "will run their course and terminate with virtually complete recovery without specific intervention." The problem is that idea isn't profitable. As long as the gatekeepers continue to use the language of chemical imbalances to describe what for many is just an episodic case of the "blahs," we'll continue creating more problems than we solve.</p><p>--</p><p><em>Stay in touch with Derek on <a href="http://www.twitter.com/derekberes" target="_blank">Twitter</a>, <a href="https://www.facebook.com/DerekBeresdotcom" target="_blank">Facebook</a> and <a href="https://derekberes.substack.com/" target="_blank">Substack</a>. His next book is</em> "<em>Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."</em></p>
SEAL training is the ultimate test of both mental and physical strength.
- The fact that U.S. Navy SEALs endure very rigorous training before entering the field is common knowledge, but just what happens at those facilities is less often discussed. In this video, former SEALs Brent Gleeson, David Goggins, and Eric Greitens (as well as authors Jesse Itzler and Jamie Wheal) talk about how the 18-month program is designed to build elite, disciplined operatives with immense mental toughness and resilience.
- Wheal dives into the cutting-edge technology and science that the navy uses to prepare these individuals. Itzler shares his experience meeting and briefly living with Goggins (who was also an Army Ranger) and the things he learned about pushing past perceived limits.
- Goggins dives into why you should leave your comfort zone, introduces the 40 percent rule, and explains why the biggest battle we all face is the one in our own minds. "Usually whatever's in front of you isn't as big as you make it out to be," says the SEAL turned motivational speaker. "We start to make these very small things enormous because we allow our minds to take control and go away from us. We have to regain control of our mind."