Guest Blogger

Hiding is bad for the military's mental health

Filed By Guest Blogger | February 15, 2010 10:30 AM | comments

Filed in: Media, Politics
Tags: Don't Ask Don't Tell, gay servicemembers, gay soldiers, gays in the military, mental health, military

Editors' Note: Guest blogger Mary Barber, MD, is a psychiatrist and member of the LGBT committee of the Group for Advancement of Psychiatry.

MEBphoto.jpgImagine one day at work that you are being evacuated because of a terrorist attack. However getting out of the office alive and in one piece is not your only anxiety that day. As you head for the nearest exit, it occurs to you that no one at your job will know who to contact if anything happens to you.

This was not an imaginary scenario for retired Navy Captain Joan Darrah. Assigned to work at the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, she got out safe. But for several hours that day she was unable to reach her partner by cell phone. During that time she realized that if something had happened, Darrah's female partner of many years would not know as she could not be listed with the Navy as an emergency contact under the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy.

The military's policy banning gays and lesbians from openly serving is now being reconsidered, and that is a very good thing for the psychological wellbeing of those who serve. "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" doesn't always lead to heartstopping realizations like Captain Darrah's, but it is the cause of daily lies and omissions.

Imagine yourself again at work. What will you say when your colleague asks about your weekend? Or about the new piece of clothing or jewelry your spouse gave you? Could you go a day, a week, a month, or even years without mentioning your spouse, your family, your home life?

Years ago, the military excluded gays and lesbians from service because homosexuality was thought to be a mental illness. Psychiatrists of an earlier era endorsed that view, and helped screen out gay men and lesbians from military eligibility. All that changed when the American Psychiatric Association (APA) removed homosexuality from its diagnostic manual in 1973. APA went further in 1990, issuing a position statement that non-discrimination in the workplace should include the armed services, and that gays and lesbians should be allowed to openly serve.

Under "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," today's military psychiatrists feel they can't fully do their jobs as physicians entrusted with servicemembers' mental health. They are not able to ask their patients about anything that might reveal the person is gay or lesbian. At the same time, gay and lesbian soldiers who need therapy for depression or post-traumatic stress cannot fully discuss their lives in therapy without fear of being reported and losing their jobs. This can compromise mental health treatment as well as create rifts in the doctor-patient relationship. With servicemembers under enormous stress from repeated deployments in two wars, access to effective and confidential treatment is particularly important at this time.

It has been argued that openly gay soldiers would interfere with unit cohesion. Yet "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" itself harms unit cohesion. How well could you trust a coworker if you thought she was a loner with no life, or you thought he was always hiding something from you? How close would you feel to your fellow employees if you could not share with them your worry about you spouse's illness, or the break up of your relationship?

Repealing "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" would end our servicemembers' daily need to hide and lie, and allow them to get good mental health treatment without fear when they need it. For these reasons, Congress should act quickly to reverse this policy.

Recent Entries Filed under Media:

Leave a comment

We want to know your opinion on this issue! While arguing about an opinion or idea is encouraged, personal attacks will not be tolerated. Please be respectful of others.

The editorial team will delete a comment that is off-topic, abusive, exceptionally incoherent, includes a slur or is soliciting and/or advertising. Repeated violations of the policy will result in revocation of your user account. Please keep in mind that this is our online home; ill-mannered house guests will be shown the door.


Service Members are normally incredibly stressed! That’s before you even get to Deployment and War Time stresses. Hiding any issue that a person has that falls in the GLBTI spectrum only adds an additional stress to ones psyche.

I could write volumes on this subject.

I give as much support as I can to Transgender Military Service Members. There are far too many stories of personal information leaking out of the confidential mental health records. (hell, even I have a story)

Seriously, the mental health care providers in the Military Medical System do need to disconnect from the military to deal with these issues. They have to lay DADT aside in its entirety. They need to place the mental health care provider off site (Out side of the base, but close to it so those without transport can still get there) or provide a referral to appropriate civilian care.

I do fully agree that allowing all of our GLBTI citizens to serve openly is the best course all around. It removes a level of stress that is unnecessary, allows those who are having issues to seek assistance and allows those coworkers to lend assistance sooner if a person is obviously having issues.

Heck, if you ask, I’ll even give you a first person narrative of what happens when someone (who’s GLBTI) doesn’t talk. Sadly, more than one story.

Who outside of the far right still needs to be convinced here? DADT is ridiculous.