What's Brewin: YouTube, MySpace and PTSD

Defense plans to rely on social media to destigmatize mental health for troops.

The Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury plans to launch this fall a massive multimedia campaign to destigmatize post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury, including using social networking sites such as MySpace and YouTube, Cmdr. Tony Arita, a psychologist at the centers told me.

The campaign plans to use the networking sites to reach younger troops and their families and will turn to traditional media to reach the public as well, said Arita, director for outreach and advocacy for the centers, who added that the three-to-five-year campaign will be "enormous and ambitious in scope."

He said the centers will model the PTSD and TBI campaign on the National Institute of Mental Health's 2003 advocacy effort to destigmatize depression. That effort, called "real men, real depression," included ads aired on 119 television stations, 974 radio stations and articles placements in various print outlets.

NIMH used true-life stories to illustrate that depression is not a sign of weakness, and Arita said the centers want to use real warriors to drive home the same message for PTSD and TBI.

It Starts at the Top

I have buddies who have returned from Iraq tours and who suffer from combat stress. They have no intention of seeking help from their command or the Military Health System because they fear that doing this will ruin their careers.

Arita agreed the commanders' attitudes must undergo a cultural shift to view PTSD as a consequence of war and not a weakness, a view backed by Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "You can't expect a private or a specialist to be willing to seek counseling when his or her captain or colonel or general won't do it," Mullen said in May.

But, Mullen said, top Defense commanders have to make everyone in uniform aware that "reaching out for help is, in fact, one of the most courageous acts and one of the first big steps to reclaiming your life and your future."

Jim Noonan, an old Marine Vietnam veteran buddy of mine who is senior vice president for worldwide strategic communications for Warner Brothers Home Entertainment (a title he says requires a business card with a foldout section), said leadership on destigmatizing PTSD has to start at the Joint Chiefs of Staff level. It must be hammered home throughout the chain of command for weeks at a time.

In case the centers are looking for a PTSD message for Defense Department leadership, Jim provided this one: "It's not shameful to have PTSD, but it is shameful to disrespect the honorable service of courageous men and women who have suffered a mental injury in combat as serious as a physical one."

The Family and the Public

Arita said part of the real warrior PTSD campaign will target family members of deployed troops - spouses, parents and children - who have paid their own emotional price.

Eventually, Arita said, the centers want to develop a PTSD message to raise the general public's awareness about the effects of combat stress, a move I applaud, based on my experiences after Vietnam, which few understood and even fewer cared about.

Keep It In-House and Refine the Message

Arita said the centers are seeking support for its outreach efforts from firms on the TRICARE Evaluation, Analysis and Management Support contract.

But Chris Dour, who spent 14 years as Navy public affairs officer and now is vice president of Synexxus Inc., a technology startup in Arlington, Va., said the PTSD public relations effort should be managed in-house, by qualified PAOs who understand the military culture rather than by uninformed contractors.

Dour said the centers also should separate the PTSD and TBI messages. TBI is an unseen physical injury that results from a blast, while PTSD is a mental condition. He added that the outreach effort also should invoke the historical perspective of the Vietnam War, the last time the Unites States had a large number of veterans suffering from combat stress.

In addition, Dour advocated sending veterans with PTSD or TBI to speak at high schools to put a public face on invisible wounds at the local level.

The Ideal Guy for the Job?

Dour and I agree that if the centers are looking for a well-qualified candidate to lead their efforts to destigmatize PTSD, they might want to tap the services of legendary Navy PAO Kevin Wensing, who is currently the public affairs officer for Deputy Secretary of Defense Gordon England.

Kevin, are you looking for a job when the administration changes in January?