Rethinking Mental Trauma

May 23, 2018

“If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering. … Without suffering and death, human life cannot be complete.”

Viktor Frankl’s account of his experience at the Auschwitz death camp is just one example of a theme that cuts across all of human experience: Life necessarily entails struggle. The key insight from Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning is that you can find meaning in suffering by responding to—even embracing—your own struggle.

In important ways, this lesson has been backed up in recent years by the advancement of the concept of post-traumatic growth (PTG). Developed by academic psychologists such as Richard Tedeschi, PTG emphasizes that there can be positive consequences to trauma and suffering, such as changes in self-perception, strengthened relationships, and a changed life philosophy.

Members of the military, in particular, are a group that illuminates the potential of PTG. On the one hand, service members show elevated levels of trauma—whether before, during, or after their service—and are widely known to have disproportionately high levels of suicide. But they also may demonstrate how trauma can be used as an opportunity for growth and development.

To be sure, PTG isn’t a strategy for everyone. As the journalist Jim Rendon wrote for the New York Times in 2012, “When it comes to treatment, however, there isn’t a consensus on how, or whether, to integrate the concept of growth.” As he points out, some studies suggest that pushing this sort of growth mindset might be harmful to, and even stigmatize, people who simply can’t take up the narrative. In addition, there’s the challenge of objectively measuring a phenomenon based so much on self-reporting.

To better understand how PTG might be applied to veterans care, New America spoke to Ken Falke, the chairman and founder of Boulder Crest Retreat, a Virginia-based non-profit that offers programs for free to veterans. Importantly, Boulder Crest is a training program, not a mental-health therapy program overseen by clinical psychologists. Falke and Josh Goldberg, the director of strategy at Boulder Crest, recently published a book called Struggle Well: Thriving in the Aftermath of Trauma. Below is a transcript of the conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity.

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