Many military veterans struggle with their mental health. Despite the availability of resources for these veterans to get treatment, some might not feel comfortable reaching out for help. One of the major reasons for this hesitancy to get mental health treatment is the stigma that surrounds mental illness. In this article, you will learn:
- What is stigma?
- What are the causes of stigma?
- What is the military doing to combat stigma?
- Why stigma is such a concern in the military.
Stigma is a belief that has many different contexts. The Cambridge English Dictionary defines stigma as, “a strong feeling of disapproval that most people in a society have about something, especially when this is unfair.” Other phrases to describe stigma include a defect, feelings of shame, disgrace, or being different.
The stigma around mental health disorders can be so strong that some people have stated they would rather tell someone they were arrested for a petty crime and sent to jail than share with someone that they previously went to a psychiatric hospital.1
In addition, many people are afraid that people equate mental illness with violence, partly due to media portrayals of violent offenders as being mentally ill. In reality, people with mental illness are much more likely to be crime victims than to perpetrate violence against others.1
For many, the feeling of disapproval and stigma can be powerful and influence a person’s behavior in negative ways across many contexts:2
- The public context, where there is the potential stigma of society judging people with mental illness who seek treatment.
- The institutional context, where a service member is concerned about the effect of seeking treatment on their military career.
- The social context, where a service member worries about what their family and colleagues will think.
- The individual context, where a service member stigmatizes themselves for needing help.
Causes of Military Mental Health Stigma
Mental health stigma exists in the military for many reasons. One of the most widely acknowledged reasons for stigma is a concern over the loss of security clearance. This fear is unfounded in almost all cases of applicants for the National Security clearance who had a history of mental health treatment.
In fact, 99.98% of applicants for a National Security clearance who acknowledged getting mental health treatment were able to attain a security clearance. Of the small number of applicants who were not cleared, other significant issues attributed to the denial of a security clearance.3
Another reason military personnel are reluctant to obtain mental health treatment is related to military culture. Military culture espouses the “warrior ethos,” which is a set of beliefs around what a warrior or soldier should be. The qualities that make up the warrior ethos include:4
- Commitment to excellence.
- Living by a moral code.
While these are admirable qualities, this type of culture doesn’t necessarily make it easy for a military service member to admit to showing signs of depression and anxiety. Consequently, seeking mental health treatment seems to go against the “warrior ethos” for many members of the military.
In general, military culture tends to emphasize toughness, even stigmatizing those who claim physical illness as being weak. Additionally, the extreme importance in military life on the group’s needs vs. the needs of an individual discourages a service member from taking time off for mental health treatment.
These characteristics of military life are so ingrained in service members that they easily carry over into civilian life for military vets after they leave active duty service.4
What the Military is Doing to Combat Stigma
The military is attempting to overcome and combat stigma so that military service members and veterans are more willing to reach out and seek mental health treatment.
For example, the military is educating service members about “Question 21,” referring to a question on the National Security clearance application that asks if the applicant has had counseling or hospitalization for a behavioral health issue. The military is highlighting that seeking behavioral health counseling does not endanger a person’s security clearance.
In addition, the military is educating applicants about the types of treatment that must be disclosed. Some types of counseling don’t have to be reported, such as grief, marital, or family counseling unrelated to being a perpetrator of domestic violence. Nor do applicants have to report counseling related to serving in a combat environment.3
Veterans Access to Mental Health Services
The military is also taking active steps to increase awareness and availability of mental health treatment. Projects include embedding behavioral health providers within units to increase service members’ familiarity with providers and to reduce stigma and barriers for soldiers to reach out and ask for help. Other programs include public awareness efforts, such as the Real Warriors Campaign, which provides education and outreach to military service members and veterans.
Such outreach specifically illustrates that asking for help is a sign of strength, as the program also provides resources for obtaining help.2
In addition, the military has broadened categories when assessing fitness for duty. In past years, the only categories available were “ready for duty,” and “ill and not fit for duty.” However, the military now has a continuum of readiness, which includes categories, such as “injured” or “reacting.”
Now, service members can be considered fit for duty and still receive counseling. The military is also normalizing reactions to combat, such as stress and PTSD, by having high-ranking military officers share their own stories of struggles with troops.5
Why Stigma in the Military is a Concern
The impact of stigma in the military is concerning. An estimated 60% of military service members who need mental health treatment are not getting it.6 This is costing billions of dollars in lost productivity among troops as well as in healthcare costs.5
There’s also a human cost. Suicide rates among military service members hit a record high in 2018.6 Furthermore, the association between untreated PTSD and substance abuse in service members and veterans is strong. When a person doesn’t get treatment for PTSD, substance abuse is more likely to become an issue.7
In light of all of this, all branches of the U.S. military are working to fight the stigma around mental illness and treatment. The VA, Department of Defense, and all military branches are working together to encourage and provide resources for active-duty personnel and veterans in need of treatment.
Veterans Mental Health Treatment: Getting Help
The VA is an important partner in treating mental health concerns for veterans and service members. In addition, organizations such as Make the Connection offer resources to help military members and veterans.
If you or a loved one needs help with substance abuse or a co-occurring disorder such as depression or PTSD, American Addiction Centers offers a program that specializes in caring for veterans, called Salute to Recovery. The Salute to Recovery program is offered at Desert Hope in Nevada and Recovery First in Florida.
Both programs provide tailored treatment for veterans. Many staff members in the Salute to Recovery program are military veterans themselves, giving them a unique perspective and empathy for the needs of veterans.
- U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs. (2015). Mental health stigma: Ten things you should know about.
- RAND Corporation. (2014). Mental health stigma in the military.
- U.S. Department of the Army. Personnel security.
- Sharp, M.L., Fear, N.T., Rona, R.J., Wessely, S., Greenberg, N., Jones, N., & Goodwin, L. (2015). Stigma as a barrier to seeking health care among military personnel with mental health problems. Epidemiologic Reviews, 37(1), 144-162.
- American Psychological Association. (2015). The military’s war on stigma.
- Military Times. (2019). Military suicide rates hit record high in 2018.
- Department of Veterans Affairs. (n.d.). Understanding PTSD and substance abuse.