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Psychiatrist reports Facebook hurts troop morale

Categories: Neurosciences

June 7, 2012
David Whiting
Dr. Valeh Karimkhani and I sit at a Starbucks discussing the dark side of Facebook, and our focus isn't the company's poor IPO showing.
Karimkhani is chief of psychiatry liaison services at Hoag Hospital and an Army reserve major who has served two tours of duty in Iraq. So when she speaks of issues like anxiety, depression, divorce and suicide – and how they can be connected to Facebook – it's with a voice of authority.
Valeh Karimkhani, DO, Army Reservist, Major, Chief of Psychiatry Consult Liaison services; poses at a Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) therapy room in her offices atHoag Hospital in Newport Beach. TMS Therapy is an non-invasive medical treatment for patients with depression who have not benefitted from initial antidepressant medication. Dr Karimkhani has experienced serving the military overseas and feels Facebook is responsible for 90 percent of miliitary mental issues for those serving overseas.
With people near us tapping on laptops and smartphones, Karimkhani allows there is much that is good about Facebook. Families instantly share news and photos, people connect with old friends and, yes, there's that social networking thing.
But for soldiers half a world away, reading about get-togethers they can't join or seeing photos of spouses dancing with strangers can be deeply wounding.
It's a side of Facebook that affects civilians as well. But it's also one that few are willing to discuss, fearing they'll be branded as technophobes or worse.
• • •
I've been doing the Facebook thing for five years, ever since founder Mark Zuckerberg was, like, 23 and was only worth, like, a hundred million dollars.
I've connected with distant relatives I hadn't talked to since elementary school, heard from an old high school swim team member I was pleasantly surprised remembered me, and shared hundreds of columns.
I've updated my profile so much that even I'm bored with it, made "friends" with hundreds of people I know nothing about (yes, I "like" you too!), and given up trying to figure out why Facebook keeps changing its interface.
Hey, you behind the curtain: You realize we're never going to click on the ads, right?
While I don't understand how some Facebook fans find the time to share so much, I truly enjoy messages, conversations and photos – even the gnarly ones from my outdoor friends with their poison oak burns and bloody cuts.
As a parent, I also like being able to check in on my college-age children (though my son went private when he realized Dad was a spy).
And I've had jarring moments: Seeing my daughter swigging a bottle of rum which she insists was barbecue sauce; discovering my son had his hips pierced...yes, you read that right.
Still, most of my "friends" avoid posting truly personal or potentially troubling things online.
But, for many, that's not the case.
As Karimkhani advises about social media: "We don't get in stranger's cars, but we invite them right into our home."
• • •
Karimkhani didn't start out caring about Facebook. Now 36, she grew up planning to care for patients.
Born and raised in Denver, Karimkhani attended the College of Osteopathic Medicine at the University of North Texas. After an internship at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School, she finished her psychiatry residency at University of Colorado Health and Science Center.
With three children, Karimkhani joined the Army Reserves to serve country and help pay off student loans. Now an Army major, her biography (yes, online) reports that she is "dedicated to helping and healing our American heroes and soldiers."
With her cellphone chirping and Karimkhani politely ignoring it, we talk about her first tour of duty in 2008.
Unlike longer-serving active duty soldiers, reserve doctors average about 90 days on a single tour. Karimkhani volunteered for extra time and served a total of 120 days at Al Asad Airbase in central Iraq.
Home to II Marine Expeditionary Force, the air base's computer center was a popular place, and chatting with family members through Skype was the most common connection.
By 2010, when Karimkhani returned to Iraq for her second tour, social networking on the base was different. Facebook ruled.
Soldiers could handle most everything they faced – from battle fatigue to physical wounds. But dealing with home front relationship issues — brought to them in vivid detail via Facebook — proved exceptionally difficult.
• • •
At Joint Base Balad (also known as Camp Anaconda), the psychiatrist heard soldiers say, "I'm here, but my mind's not – and that's not safe."
A sniper confided that learning his baby was sick not only made his job more difficult, and it steadily grew tougher because he couldn't do anything to help his child.
"I can't focus on my baby being sick," he told Karimkhani. "It distracts from keeping myself and my buddies safe."
Karimkhani estimates she saw three new patients every day and that 90 percent of the problems stemmed directly from issues brought to them through Facebook.
Soldiers would go online and see girlfriends, boyfriends, spouses with new friends.
"There was a real disconnect, and they weren't there," Karimkhani explains. "There was a real sense of helplessness and a sense of powerlessness."
She reports that one woman sent an anniversary greeting on Facebook. Her husband replied saying he'd fallen in love with another woman, that he wanted a divorce.
How bad off were the Facebook walking wounded?
Karimkhani reports that some soldiers stopped eating and couldn't sleep.
Manic depression can be a career killer in any profession, the military in particular.
Fortunately for struggling soldiers, the 21st Century Pentagon is not your father's Pentagon. A few months ago, I reported a spike in military suicides. Pentagon officials were frank and helpful discussing what they admitted was an epidemic.
Karimkhani reports that brass on base was empathetic and did its best to manage social media issues. She also noted the military has tools unavailable to most civilians.
Military counselors can assist with difficult overseas phone calls. They also can shut down the Internet and even remove a troubled soldier's password.
As we talk, I'm reminded of my son's pierced hips. Are there social networking tips for civilians?
Karimkhani offers advice she tells her own children: "You don't want the world to know your business."
Teens and young adults post about smoking weed, drinking, having sex. That can lead to bullying or a haunting trail when they apply for jobs.
Still, Karimkhani reminds us that social media is relatively new and that means there's hope we can figure out how best to use it.
"We adapt," the psychiatrist says. "That's what humans do. We'll change and the culture will change."
I think we have a new Facebook friend.
To view the original article from the OC Register clickhere