Can mental toughness be taught?

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The U.S. Army plans to give every one of its soldiers mental stress training, according to today’s New York Times. The training is meant to address troubling levels of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder among soldiers and ex-soldiers. The Army suicide rate has continued to climb this year, with suicides even exceeding combat deaths in some months.

Will stress training help? The Times reports that training will mostly be tips about recognizing and dealing with self-defeating thoughts — techniques “modeled on techniques that have been tested mainly in middle schools.”

Usually taught in weekly 90-minute classes, the methods seek to defuse or expose common habits of thinking and flawed beliefs that can lead to anger and frustration — for example, the tendency to assume the worst. (“My wife didn’t answer the phone; she must be with someone else.”)

Presumably the middle-schoolers on whom this was tested weren’t worried about their wives — or about witnessing murders or bombings. But it may not be so ludicrous to apply to soldiers a technique that’s proven in young adolescents. Thirteen-year-olds probably face none of the same stressors as soldiers, but at least they demonstrate that you don’t need to be gushing about your feelings or a huge fan of pop psychology for the techniques to help. In adult groups that seem more obviously open and receptive to touchy-feely positive-thinking tips, other stress training programs have also shown an impact: Studies show that cancer patients and people living with HIV, for example, can even experience physical health gains after learning stress-busting techniques. 

The jury’s still out, however, on how stress training should really work, and on which methods are most effective for combat troops. As the Times reports, this new program is still untested in its target group:

“It’s important to be clear that there’s no evidence that any program makes soldiers more resilient,” said George A. Bonanno, a psychologist at Columbia University. But he and others said the program could settle one of the most important questions in psychology: whether mental toughness can be taught in the classroom.

The training will be phased in gradually, starting in October.