The Documentary

MIND ZONE follows therapists with the 113th Army Combat Stress Control detachment as they carry out two conflicting missions: protecting soldiers from battle fatigue and keeping these same soldiers in the fight. With psychiatric casualties mounting, the United States Army ups the deployment of mental health detachments to war zones—an undertaking on a scale previously unimaginable. As the 113th is deployed to Afghanistan and trains for their dual roles as soldiers and healers, Colonel David Rabb and his team of therapists are equipped with a wide arsenal of psychological techniques. But as they arrive to replace the previous Combat Stress Control unit, they learn the gravity of the tasks ahead and face daunting challenges in carrying out their conflicting missions.

The documentary moves between the battle zone and the home front as therapists working at the Veterans Administration reflect back on what could have been done to prevent combat stress conditions in theater. MIND ZONE offers a rarely seen glimpse of heated debates within the field of psychology over diagnosis and treatment of combat conditions, and the limits of categories such as post-traumatic stress disorder in capturing the psychological impacts of warfare.

Aims

Two primary aims guide the production of MIND ZONE : 1) to tell a powerful and neglected story about dilemmas in providing mental health care for soldiers in war zones and 2) to produce a vividly engaging account of how the principles of psychology are both used and abused in managing the mental impacts of warfare.

The first aim is to tell the story of the psychology of war from the perspectives of soldiers on a Combat Stress Control team. The work of mental health professionals in the U.S. military is largely invisible to the public eye. And much of what does circulate in the media is quite disturbing. Since 2005, there have been two primary stories of psychology and the military that gained traction in the U.S. media. One story centers on the role of psychologists in interrogation procedures at Guantanamo and the other on the failures of the military and VA to manage the escalating problems of sexual violence, suicides, and PTSD among service men and women and veterans. There is another story—one that features the valiant efforts of clinicians to make manageable what may be ultimately unmanageable.

A second aim is to tell a story about psychology itself, with the war as the setting for probing techniques and technologies used to manage situations where humans are exposed to high levels of stress. Since 2005, the U.S. Department of Defense has launched ambitious programs on mental health and military service. Yet the principles behind these new techniques, such as virtual reality therapy and exposure therapy, are veiled in mystery. The documentary takes viewers into the world of psychology and warfare, explaining how the lessons are carried from the battlefield to the home front.

History

MIND ZONE grew out of the crises mounting over managing the psychological toll of warfare.  With the support of officers in the Oregon National Guard and staff at the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Portland, Oregon, Jan Haaken, the director and herself a clinical psychologist, approached the Army in the fall of 2010 with a proposal for producing a documentary on mental health practices within the military.

Many television productions and films have brought the hellish realities of war to the home front through the eyes of soldiers and veterans. But the stories of soldiers whose job it is to prevent psychiatric casualties in war zones have not been told. Although the novel Catch 22 and the MASH film and series feature military psychology and psychiatry, there has been surprisingly little coverage of debates over diagnosis and treatment of combat stress in war zones.  The U.S. military has enlisted psychologists and psychiatrists in war zones since World War I. But the extended wars and repeated deployments over the past decade have dramatically increased the military’s reliance on psychological expertise. While public consciousness grows of post-traumatic stress disorder and the alarming suicide rates among veterans, less well known are controversies around treatment and diagnosis of conditions on the battle field.

In pre-production preparations in fall 2010, Haaken interviewed over fifty mental health professionals working within the military and the VA systems on the issues around prevention and treatment of stress conditions associated with military service. Her team carried out extensive research on the history of combat stress control and “forward psychiatry,” an approach that treats soldiers close to their unit in war zones, and “resiliency training,” an implementation of psychological techniques oriented toward prevention of battle fatigue.

In March of 2011, the Army’s Chief Officer of Public Affairs, in consultation with the Pentagon, finally authorized Haaken to film on military bases, including bases in Afghanistan, for the purpose of making a documentary on the role of mental health specialists in war zones. Haaken and her crew shot over 60 hours of footage at training bases in the US before travelling to Afghanistan in June of 2011 to embed with the 113th Combat Stress Control Detachment.