I consider myself to be an altruistic and caring person. I do not feel I am “better” than people based on socioeconomics, education, culture, or anything else. In my therapeutic interactions I truly listen to people and I don’t pretend to think I know it all. In my PhD program, we are constantly challenged to self-reflect which has allowed me to recognize personal growth and maturity that has taken place over the years. Overall, I feel I’m in a pretty good place. But guess what? Since I’ve returned from Afghanistan, I can’t help myself. Yes, I have caught myself having some condescending thoughts toward others about something.
Lately, when I read or hear someone’s take on military-related behavioral health issues or treatment (a hot topic recently), I find myself thinking, well, condescendingly. What can they tell me about it? I want to have a pretty decent conversation or know something about the person before I think a single word out of their mouth is worth listening to. Wow, sounds awful, huh? But I saw things while deployed that were appalling to me personally. I saw so much lip service and lack of true interest in what’s best for Troops’ behavioral health care that I’m now slightly jaded. Maybe “wary” would be a better way to describe my feeling.
Some officers act condescendingly to those “beneath” them in rank structure--I’ve known this for years. But what I didn’t know was that it also occurs inside the offices of psychiatrists, psychologists, and social workers. This is unacceptable in our field. Our field is about helping others, allowing them to be comfortable in their skin with us, listening to them, giving them a safe environment to express their sadness, anger, frustration. While overseas, I was not pleased by how some lower enlisted (in other words, not officers or high-ranking Troops) were treated by behavioral health care professionals. I guess I actually paid attention to ethics courses and have read codes of ethics, so what I recognized as subpar professional performance frustrated me to the point of having dreams about it and crying at times. People outside our profession do not understand what therapy is supposed to be about. So when a military officer has a PhD and tells a Soldier to leave his/her office because of not opening up in the first 10 minutes, no one questions this. No one outside our profession realizes this is unprofessional. No one realizes this quite possibly is doing harm to the client/patient. But it happens.
One Soldier I knew was literally trapped inside a burning military vehicle because he and his buddies were being ambushed. They fought their way out and made it out alive, with injuries. A few weeks later (according to the Soldier’s account), this young man who almost died for his country was reprimanded in a session by a behavioral health officer for being “disrespectful” and “unprofessional” due to “disobeying an order”. What was the “order?” The psychiatrist wanted him to take a sleeping pill and an anti-anxiety medication and he did not feel comfortable doing so. Last I checked an individual has the right not to take psychotropic drugs, right? He was abruptly told to leave the office and not come back, and also not to disobey officers in the future because there might be retribution. And this officer will receive accolades and awards, return to the States, and perhaps write a book or give a presentation and be regarded as an “expert.” When I think of how much more those enlisted Troops would have benefited from 50 minutes of being treated respectfully, it saddens me that they missed out on true professionalism and therapy due to someone’s condescension.
I heard another behavioral health officer first-hand say he did not plan on leaving our military installation for the duration of his tour. My boss was appalled and told him politely that it is in his job description to do so and if he didn’t travel to offer the Troops in his area behavioral health services, they would go without. The officer didn’t mind one bit and was still asking around and trying to get in good with other officers so he wouldn’t have to leave the office. The last I checked he had not left the area once. The enlisted Soldier assigned to this officer was very frustrated and vented to me about this. He couldn’t believe someone would join the military and soak up “thank you for your service” statements, the sign-on bonus, etc. and then get to his station only to attempt to cower behind a desk. But I bet he’ll go home and keep his mouth shut about that part. All everyone else sees is that he’s been in the military and was deployed. We know he just wanted the benefits and didn’t care if Troops went without care.
Don’t get me wrong--there are great behavioral health professionals who are passionate about their work and helping Troops. But I personally witnessed more who were not--I witnessed more who enjoyed their position and gave minimal care to enlisted Troops and enjoyed the perks and respect they received due to their position. So I now am catching myself being wary and even condescending when I hear or read of someone claiming to know about what’s going on with today’s Veterans and what their behavioral health issues are. I’m thinking to myself, “Hmm...really? Well, when I actually traveled around and when I actually talked to the Troops they said something completely different.” I’m questioning how they know and if they got their information from meetings and information from other officers who rarely had actual two-way conversations with the Troops.
I’m not saying my knee-jerk reactions of doubting information (and that I probably know more) is a good thing--I notice this and am dealing with it. I find myself questioning the person’s background and I want to have a conversation with them first before I give them credit for their knowledge or expertise. This mindset of mine was inevitably developed because I saw people in meetings and at events and giving advice when I knew how they actually interacted with Troops behind closed doors. And it wasn’t always good.
While I think my condescension is ultimately backed by pure intentions, I realize condescension in and of itself is not necessarily a positive trait. In a way, I am possessing the very trait I have found repulsive in others---the automatic presumption that one knows more than the other person. And believing that for a moment inevitably will be limiting in some cases. I think recognizing one’s personal strengths can be a good thing, but to do so to the point of shutting out what the other person is saying or who he or she is--this is the dangerous area. This is condescension. While I feel I’m not condescending in therapeutic and most other interactions, I apparently have one area that needs improvement. So I’m working on reframing my thinking and not being so condescending in this area. That being said, if I had a magic genie lamp I’d definitely devote one wish to ridding all professionals in our field of condescension toward others--particularly their clients because I’ve seen the damage that can be done. A therapy session should definitely be a place where condescension should not be allowed.
Natosha Monroe is a counselor and PhD candidate passionate about increasing Troop access to counseling services. Her blog contents are not representative of the Army or Department of Defense in any way.