When talking about veteran mental health, much of the conversation is centered on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury (TBI). While both are widespread and debilitating, the mental health-related challenges veterans face go beyond these conditions.
Dependable, courageous, and in peak physical shape, Theresa Larson chased perfection when joining the Marine Corps.
“I wanted to be the exemplary Marine," said Larson. "To the T. What does a good Marine officer do? I had to do that.”
A stellar student and Division 1 college athlete, she had been training for a challenge like this her entire life. With two older brothers in the military, Larson was well aware of the unique challenges she'd face as a female leader.
“You have to be really fit and healthy. You have to be fitter than them. They're going to look at you physically and see how you perform," said Larson.
Leader of a platoon, Larson was responsible for more than 50 Marines, working to earn their respect while training them for war.
“You already fit in if you’re a male, if you’re a female, it's what is she going to do for me? Kind of attitude. And I was prepared for that," said Larson.
But chasing perfection would come at a cost; her own well-being was no longer a priority. As the 12 to 15-hour days and mounting pressure felt out of her control, Larson latched onto what she could control.
“The drug was food for me, so it ended up turning into the bulimia end of the first year," said Larson.
With rigid fitness standards and weight requirements, the National Eating Disorders Association says service members are at especially high risk for eating disorders.
“Abuse of fitness and nutrition tends to be the thing. It might not be full-blown bulimia or anorexia, or anything like that, but it can be a lot of disordered eating. Obviously, with yo-yo dieting, too much exercise or too little exercise can affect your focus," said Larson.
Before deploying to Iraq, Larson sought help from a friend but didn’t disclose her illness to the military, fearing she’d lose her job.
“I tried to make everyone realize I would be OK because I didn’t want to let the Marines down. You know, mission accomplishment and troop welfare are kind of the things we thrive on as Marines, especially Marine leaders," said Larson.
No longer at a desk, leading operations and landmine missions, the responsibility to protect her platoon had never felt greater.
"It dawned on me, 'gosh, I’m really not OK. And this is not about me. It's about all the Marines I’m taking care of. So yeah, I’m sick, and I’m going to affect someone else.' It was a wake-up call," said Larson.
Larson was sent home and said she had to fight to get treatment in the military. While grateful they covered 12 weeks of care in an outpatient rehabilitation clinic, Larson says she was on her own to continue getting help.
“Anyone knows that has an addiction, it’s not just a, 'OK, you're done.' It's a continuous, daily decision and practice. And so, I ended up paying for my own care after that for a while," said Larson. "It was a couple of years until I stopped the symptoms of bulimia, and then was just dealing with what was left-- the depression, the anxiety, and managing that.”
She says getting healthy became her job. And after the military, Larson helped others do the same. She wrote a memoir about her military experience and has since been contacted by countless service members and veterans struggling with similar challenges.
“As a leader, there's a fine line of when you push yourself and when you need to ask for help. And asking for help, I’ve learned, is not a weakness. It’s a strength," said Larson.
After earning a doctorate in physical therapy, Larson and her husband founded Movement Rx, a program helping people around the country uncover the root cause of their pain and injuries.
“Just because someone is in a wheelchair, that’s not the only thing going on. Or if someone looks like they’re fine, it doesn’t mean they don’t have something going on," said Larson.
In addition to free online resources for veterans, Movement Rx has free in-person training for veterans in San Diego.
“We have our health care platform that veterans can use, offering mindfulness and meditation, nutrition support, fitness, as well as movement, working through injuries," said Larson.
While there's more help now for struggling veterans and service members, Larson knows asking for it is still just as hard.
“You asking for help, it's going to open more doors and more growth than you can ever imagine, but you have to take that vulnerable leap, and that's when life really happens."