'Friend' or foe: An Army psychiatrist says Facebook hurts our troops

By Mayrav Saar
August 18, 2012

Our soldiers are being devastated on an unexpected front: Facebook.
Troops who have survived shellings and shootings can find themselves emotionally wounded by online photos of spouses partying with strangers and innuendo-laden updates that betray a very different “status” than that of a devoted girlfriend back home.

Access to social media has created famous problems for the military — from pictures of soldiers acting disrespectfully, to troops inadvertently releasing the names of American dead before families were notified.
But just as problematic is the damage social media is causing soldiers’ psyches. Military psychiatrists have reported that Facebook on the front lines has played a part in a host of problems, including depression and suicide in active-duty military personnel.

“About 80% of all of our intake had some Facebook flavor,” said psychiatrist Dr. Valeh Karimkhani, an Army reserve major who has served two tours of duty in Iraq.

Karimkhani, who served in 2008 and again in 2010, said the damage was apparent when she watched troops using Skype and Facebook at the Al Asad Airbase.

“When you’re on the other side of the world and you see all these pictures of your wife or husband with a new group of people, new friends, it becomes really concerning,” Karimkhani said. “They would become depressed and paranoid and end up in psychiatry, saying, ‘I’m going to kill myself.’ ”

Military psychiatrists are now able restrict troops’ access to social media, change a soldier’s password — even force a mediated phone call with a warring spouse.
“Sometimes after contacting the spouse, they could see it was innocent,” she said.

Of course, there are times when suspicions are accurate. One soldier received a Facebook message from her husband on their anniversary, telling her he’d fallen in love with another woman and wanted a divorce.

“That was particularly cold,” said Karimkhani, chief of psychiatry liaison services at Hoag Hospital in Newport Beach, Calif.

The risks are even higher if it’s the soldier who is bragging about exploits online: Adultery by military personnel can be punishable by jail time.

“I am always amazed at the things people would put on Facebook, thinking it wasn’t a public forum,”Karimkhanisaid. “People would put some sort of back-and-forth innuendo with a new girlfriend on their wall and then be surprised that people would find out. I always want to say, ‘Hey, buddy, this isn’t your journal.’ You’re basically taking a bullhorn to say, ‘Hey everybody this is what’s happening in my life!’ ”
Because of that bullhorn’s reach, the military has strict policies about what can be conveyed in e-mail or on social-media sites, and those rules create their own set of relationship problems for people back home.

In more analog times, soldiers could write home to tell loved ones if their units were being moved. But with everything happening in real time now, soldiers often have to keep their positions secret for security reasons.

“You can’t even call to tell your wife that you’re moving and that you won’t be able to talk for a few days. So now you’re keeping a secret,” Karimkhani said. “It changes the perception for the person on the outside. ‘You’re not telling me the truth. You don’t trust me.’

“From a security standpoint, telling would be a nightmare, but it adds a flavor of stress to the relationship. Once you put that little element in of ‘I’m not allowed to tell you things,’ the seed is planted. It’s anxiety-provoking.”

In relationships that started out solid, these kinds of necessary communication blackouts can be weathered. But so often that is not the case with young soldiers.

“These are 20-year-olds who got married three months before their 12-month deployment. In some cases they only met their spouse five months before being deployed anyway,” Karimkhani said. “That is a bad recipe for an early marriage. You put all this onto this hugely stressful situation [of war], and it’s really tough on people.”

It is one thing to be neurotic or broken-hearted in the middle of Manhattan. It’s quite another to be distracted in Kandahar.

“You don’t have time to focus on the problems at home because for a lot of these folks, they’re trying not to get killed,” Karimkhani said. “Soldiers would say, ‘I’m here, but my mind’s not — and that’s not safe.’ ”

Soldiers armed against insurgents have reported that they are defenseless when it comes to problems at home. Being able to see and communicate on Skype and via Facebook brings troops close enough to home to see a crying baby, but not close enough to do anything about it.

“They can’t focus on their 2-year-old who has the flu or a serious illness. It would distract them from keeping themselves and others safe,” the psychiatrist said. “And there is nothing they can do.”

There are no easy answers. Karimkhani does not believe restricting Facebook is realistic. It just means that the psychological issues some soldiers faced after the war now surface during it.

Home is closer than ever, yet painfully far away.

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