Logotherapy: Restoring Meaning and Purpose in the Veteran's Life

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As the need for treatments of military-related PTSD increased with the number of veterans returning home and leaving the service after multiple deployments, it didn’t take long to overburden the Veterans Administration and their current practices.  Unsurprisingly, as the number of appointments available for treatment diminished, the numbers of veterans requiring appointments increased.  Not only was the number of appointments insufficient, but often veterans did not or could not “fit” into the type of therapy available and provided by the VA.  As each and every veteran’s experience was different, each veteran needs therapies and treatments that meets their unique needs. 

As a graduate student at the University of South Dakota, I was introduced to “Logotherapy.”  Logotherapy was developed by neurologist and psychiatrist Dr. Viktor Frankl. It is considered the "Third Viennese School of Psychotherapy” along with Freud's psychoanalysis and Adler's individual psychology.  Logotherapy is based on the belief that finding meaning in one's life is the primary, most powerful motivating and driving force in humans.

Dr. Frankl’s concept is based on the premise that the primary motivational force of an individual is to find a meaning in life. He lists the following tenets representative of the basic principles of Logotherapy:  Life has meaning under all circumstances, even the most miserable ones.  Man’s main motivation for living is our will to find meaning in life, and that we have freedom to find meaning in what we do, and what we experience, or at least in the stand we take when faced with a situation of unchangeable suffering.

The human spirit is referred to in several of the assumptions of Logotherapy, but the use of the term spirit is not inherently "spiritual" or "religious". In Dr. Frankl’s view, the spirit is the will of the human being. The emphasis, therefore, is on the search for meaning, which is not necessarily the search for God or any other supernatural being.

Logos, being meaning through therapy, is an excellent fit with the Veteran; especially the spiritual component. Every veteran has their own type of spirituality regardless if the Veteran believes in God, Yahweh, Elohim, Allah, Jesus, or any type of nirvana. The key is finding meaning in life. If one loses meaning a certain level of hopelessness and helplessness sets in; thus one becomes suicidal by means of an existential vacuum setting in the being.

Every young lady and man who served became a part of an existential family, developing a sense of protectiveness in their family of origin and in their new found brothers and sisters.  Their meaning and purpose was to protect these families even in the worst of times.  No matter how bad the circumstances, they found they always had meaning and purpose.  Once they returned, and especially after they left the service, their sense of meaning and purpose changed.  The change was quick and not always understood, and often many no longer felt the same sense of meaning they once experienced in their military career.

Noogenic Neurosis, coined by Dr. Frankl, is a loss of meaning in life. This is often seen when the Veteran feels he or she has no value in life, with nowhere to turn in everyday life; thus, suicidal ideation can become a main focus of the Veteran’s being.

Purpose in life and meaning in life constructs appeared in Dr. Frankl’s Logotherapy writings with relation to the existential vacuum and will to meaning, as well as others who have theorized about and defined positive psychological functioning. Dr. Frankl observed that it may be psychologically damaging when a person's search for meaning is blocked. Such as if faced with discharge, medical boards, loss of income, or uncertainty about their future.  Positive life purpose and meaning is associated with strong religious beliefs, membership in groups, dedication to a cause, life values, and clear goals - essentially life as they knew it during deployments or during their military service. 

Any veteran may suffer from symptomatology related to PTSD, not just those who saw wartime service. Many have said that time heals every thing, “just give it some time, it will get better”.  Audie Murphy (38) a much decorated WWII War Hero, when asked how long it takes to overcome PTSD, answered,…”one never does”.  By itself, time does not heal, and even if it were able, too often veterans simply do not have time.  They have lost their meaning and purpose and entertain suicide as their only option. 

Suicide is simply not an option.  We must welcome innovative treatments and methods that seek to restore meaning and purpose in our veterans’ lives.

According to Dr. Frankl, "We can discover this meaning in life in three different ways: (1) by creating a work or doing a deed; (2) by experiencing something or encountering someone; and (3) by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering" and that "everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances”. 

Effective and innovative treatments exist that can restore meaning and purpose in veteran lives, and can contribute substantially toward eliminating military service as distinguishing factor in suicide. Viktor Frankl’s Logotherapy, an integral and innovative approach in the field, is one such therapy. Alone, time will heal no wounds. When combined with effective treatments such as Logotherapy, veterans and service members suffering will find renewed purpose and meaning in life.

About the Author

Dr. Mario M. Mercado (Doctor of Psychology and Counseling) quit High School in the 9th grade. He received his G.E.D. in basic training at Ft. Ord, California. He then spent a short tour in Korea before being assigned to the 94th Med. (Organizationally Attached) to the 17th Combat Aviation Group in Pleiku, Republic of Vietnam. He later served as the Medical Operations Non-Commissioned Officer for 2nd Corps Support Command, VIIth Corps and as the First Sergeant of the 12th Evacuation Hospital during the Persian Gulf War.

After retirement from the Army at age 38, Dr. Mercado attended the University of South Dakota and completed his Doctorate Degree in Psychology and Counseling.  While a graduate student he became pen pals with Dr. Frankl and discovered that Dr. Frankl was a POW at Dachau Prisoner of War Camp near Munich, Germany.  Dr. Mercado’s father served in the U.S. Army’s 42nd Rainbow Division that liberated the camp.  Dr. Mercado is now retired and continues to find purpose and meaning in helping others.