May Mental Health Awareness Month: INVICTUS

INVICTUS: Latin for unconquered, undefeated, that which cannot be beaten. And so it was that this healer attended the INVICTUS Games this past week at Disneyworld in Florida, and personally witnessed another form of healing–recovery through sport. Created by His Royal Highness, Prince Harry, the first games debuted in 2014 and showcased the athleticism of wounded veterans.  The INVICTUS Games are similar to the Paralympics where ability and unbounded determination, dominate over disability or despair. Bringing together 14 nations and more than 500 participants, Invictus heralds the very best of athletic competitive nature and the strength of the human spirit. Harnessing the power of sport to facilitate recovery, the games enable those taking part to move beyond illness and injury.

PAYING TRIBUTE: Prince Harry honored the competitors during the opening ceremony, remarking: “Every single one of them (athlete) will have confronted tremendous emotional and mental challenges. When we give a standing ovation to the competitor with the missing limbs, let’s also cheer our hearts out for the man who overcame anxiety so severe he couldn’t leave his house. Let’s cheer for the woman who fought through post­traumatic stress and let’s celebrate the soldier who was brave enough to get help for his depression.” He added: “To those of you watching at home and who are suffering from mental illness in silence ­ whether a veteran or a civilian, a mum or a dad, a teenager or a grandparent ­ I hope you see the bravery of our Invictus champions who have confronted invisible injuries and I hope you are inspired to ask for the help that you need.”

INVISIBLE WOUNDS: The honorary chairman of the INVICTUS Games, President George Bush, addressed an audience of invited guests from the Bush Institute’s Military Service Initiative also on Opening Day. The burden of stigma can cloud the decision to seek care, Mr. Bush invoked. Reinforcing the theme that PTSD and TBI are treatable, the former president introduced wounded warriors from both the UK and the US, who shared their remarkable and inspiring stories of renewal and recovery.

TEAM SEMPER FI UP:  With nearly 75% of Team USA being part of the Semper Fi Fund family, it’s fitting that this first column kick-off with a nod to the importance of sport, of competition, of never giving in—or giving up.  I salute the men and women of Team Semper Fi who make us all proud as they navigate their recovery through competition, motivation, and teamwork. The closing ceremony was held on the 12th of May. Team USA excelled on the track and excelled in medal count, too. Way to go, Team!

THE MEANING AND SYMBOLISM OF INVICTUS: William Earnest Henley, born 1850 in England, was a noted, poet, editor, and critic.  Henley contracted tuberculosis of the bone when he was just 12 years old.  Tuberculosis of the bone is a very painful, chronic, and progressive disease. Henley suffered from the disease for many years. When he was 25, surgeons told him that they would have to remove his most severely infected leg immediately, and that if he were to survive, they would ultimately need to take his other leg, too. A strong willed person, he gave the doctors permission to remove just one leg, to the knee, but informed his surgeon that he was keeping his other leg. Bravely consenting to, at that time, radical surgery, he managed to keep his other leg and live a fulfilling and productive life. In 1875, at the age of 25 he wrote Invictus from his hospital bed:

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud,
Under the bludgeoning of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find me, unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

POST TRAUMATIC GROWTH: Just as the mythical Phoenix arises from ashes, so too does overcoming adversity summons resources deep from within. The German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche was credited with saying: “That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.” This beneficial form of healing following grave circumstance is known as Post Traumatic Growth.

I can think of no better example than that of Nelson Mandela. While incarcerated on Robben Island Prison, where he was imprisoned for almost three decades, South African President Nelson Mandela often recited a personal favorite poem, INVICTUS. He would silently recite it to himself or declare it out loud as a way to strengthen his resolve, gain mastery, and fortify the will of his fellow prisoners.  Nelson Mandela found the words empowering. His resilience and refusal to relent marked one of the greatest stories of retribution of our time.

I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

MENTAL HEALTH AWARENESS MONTH:  And so it is fitting that I launch Doc’s Spot with a celebration of the competitive spirit, a triumph of determination, and an acknowledgment of the sacrifices our service men, women, and families, have endured.  Having recently wrapped up my own career as a Navy doctor for the last three decades (that makes it sound so onerous…), in upcoming columns, I would like to share with you, our precious reader, my perspective of 32 years of military medicine, the good, the bad, and the not-so-bad, but-not-so-good, either. Suitably for this psychiatrist, May is Mental Health Awareness Month.  Together, we will chip away at the rubble of menacing stigma which was so powerfully described by Prince Harry and President Bush, above.  It is our battle to lose—or win. We are the masters of our fate…We are the captains of our soul.