Stigma and Why Veterans Aren’t Getting Help
Military service members commit themselves to the country, its people, and its ideals. Veterans and active-duty personnel deserve only the finest treatment, but unfortunately, they may be hesitant to ask for it. Because of certain stigmas linked to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), other mental illnesses, and substance abuse in veterans, service members and veterans may continue to suffer unnecessarily.
Fortunately, perceptions about mental health and substance abuse are changing, and there are active efforts being made within the military and in outside organizations to reduce stigma around treatment and get help for those who need it.
What Is Stigma?
A stigma is a form of bias or prejudice one person has against another person or group of people.1 Anytime a person has a negative thought or belief against someone solely based on one or more characteristics, they are stigmatizing that person.
Stigmas may be based on characteristics such as:1
- Sexual orientation.
- Race and ethnicity.
- Political affiliation.
- Physical and mental health status.
Stigma interferes with a person’s ability to appreciate the uniqueness of another individual or their situation. A person who is stigmatizing another may default to stereotypes, assuming that the other individual acts, thinks, and lives in the same way as other members of the stigmatized group.1
Stigmatizing beliefs about certain groups of people can have very real—and very negative—consequences. For example, people from stigmatized groups may suffer:1
- Feelings of anger, shame, doubt, and hopelessness.
- Bullying and harassment.
- Isolation and withdrawal.
- Breakdown of interpersonal relationships.
- Limited access to employment and community activities.
Stigmas are so common that people may hold stigmatizing beliefs without even realizing it. People may even stigmatize themselves.
Self-stigma occurs when a person internalizes the demeaning, degrading, and distorted views of others and accepts those views as reality.2 For example, a military service member who developed a negative stigma about mental health conditions will consider himself weak or flawed when he begins to experience symptoms of PTSD, depression, or addiction.
Although all stigmas create an adverse influence on a person’s well-being, self-stigmas are especially dangerous because they are ever-present. With other stigmas, the person can avoid certain people or places to avoid the discrimination, but with self-stigmas, the prejudice surrounds them all day, every day and may severely impact their self-esteem and the way they take care of themselves.
Military Culture and Stigma
Sadly, stigma tends to be common in the military, where strength and independence are highly valued.3 When problems arise, service members may feel the need to handle it completely on their own. When problems do arise that are uniquely challenging and unable to be dealt with through sheer grit and determination, the service member or veteran may feel helpless, hopeless, and ashamed.
Unfortunately, military life often comes with uniquely stressful experiences that can lead to these types of problems. For example, the horror of combat may result in post-traumatic stress disorder or substance abuse. Both of these issues get better with treatment, yet certain stigmas that hold that people with these issues are weak, flawed, or broken persist.2 The focus on strength and toughness promoted in the military may inadvertently reinforce these mental health stigmas.
The interaction between stigma and the military culture results in service men and women who are fearful to seek out mental health services.4 Rather than risk being seen meeting with a mental health professional, members will sometimes seek informal and “off-the-record” services or avoid their symptoms completely.
To its credit, the military is aware of the cultural impact on stigma, and for more than 10 years has been funding programs to address and reduce the military’s stigma on mental health.4 Unfortunately, cultural shifts happen slowly and it may take many years to see significant changes.
Stigma Keeps Service Members and Veterans Sick
Stigmas are problematic in many ways, but one of the most damaging effects of stigma is that it can keep people from seeking out professional help. Perceived stigmas and negative attitudes about getting help can keep these men and women sick and isolated. Stigmas associated with mental illness and treatment can keep veterans and service members fearing that:3
- Their careers will suffer. Active-duty service members may avoid seeking help for fear that it will derail their careers.
- Treatment won’t work. A powerful stigma involves the ineffectiveness of mental health treatment. People may resistant entering treatment due to the false assumption that it won’t help.
- They’ll be perceived as weak. A person deeply entrenched in military culture may think mental health treatment is an admission of weakness or a character defect.
Myths & Truths About Addiction and Mental Health
Recovering from addiction and mental illness requires professional treatment and is not simply a matter of willpower or strength.
Myths and misinformation about addiction and mental health issues fuel stigmas. Stigma reduction starts with the truth. Here are some myths and realities about mental health:1,3,5,6
Myth: Addiction and other mental health issues are due to weakness, character flaws, or bad choices.
Fact: Recovering from addiction and mental illness requires professional treatment and is not simply a matter of willpower or strength.
Myth: People with mental health issues never get better.
Fact: Most people who seek effective treatment will get better and lead productive lives. For example, as many as 80% veterans who receive treatment for PTSD will recover from the condition.
Myth: Asking for help will ruin a service member’s career.
Fact: According to a 2006 study, 97% of military personnel who sought out treatment experienced no negative career repercussions. In fact, simply ignoring the problem results in worse outcomes eventually. Worsening symptoms may prompt a commanding officer to demand a mental health evaluation, and the service member’s career is more apt to be negatively impacted.
Myth: Psychiatric medications are unnecessary and harmful.
Fact: For many people who suffer from mental illness, medications are necessary for survival. For others, medications can help stabilize their symptoms so they can engage in therapy and/or function day to day.
Myth: People with mental illness are dangerous.
Fact: While people are quick to judge those who act out violently as mentally ill, only a tiny percentage of violent crimes in the United States are committed by people with serious mental illness.
Myth: Veteran and active-duty mental health issues are rare.
Fact: According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), about 25% of active duty military members show signs and symptoms of a mental illness. Rates of PTSD are 15 times higher, and rates of depression are 5 times higher in active duty service members than in civilians. In 2018, an estimated 1.7 million veterans in the U.S. sought out mental health treatment with the VA.
Overcoming Stigma to Get Help
According to a study published in Military Behavioral Health, veterans underutilize mental health services, and stigma is a main contributing factor. Interestingly, while many young veterans felt that they would be judged as weak for accessing mental health care, the large majority of them stated that they would not view a peer in the same situation in a negative way.7 This suggests that these men and women who are struggling are likely much harder on themselves than anyone else may be.
Getting help can save your life or the life of someone you love. Here are some tips to overcome real or perceived stigma and move forward:8
- Ignore the misinformation. Stay focused on what is what is right for you. Educate yourself on mental illness and addiction instead of giving weight to uninformed opinions of others.
- Connect with supportive people. No matter your situation, there are people who will support you. 12-Step groups like Alcoholics Anonymous are good continuing sources of support for veterans.
- Don’t let your illness define you. If you’re struggling with addiction or another mental disorder, give yourself compassion. You are a worthy person who has an illness that needs treatment.
- Try not to take it in. Other people’s judgments may feel very personal, but remember that it’s often based on bad information. Try not to let it affect you too deeply.
- Get the help you need. The people who treat mental illness and addiction understand that these are conditions that require treatment and that, like anyone with a medical illness, you deserve compassion and a life in recovery. When you begin treatment, you may feel the weight of the stigma lessen as you come to realize that you are not weak or defective for being sick.
If you are a veteran who is suffering and is looking for help, there are ways for you to get that help. You can reach out for mental health treatment with the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). There are several ways to reach out to the VA for assistance:
- Contact your current VA provider about treatment.
- Reach out to the OEF/OIF Coordinator at your local VA center.
- Contact your local Vet Center.
- Call the general hotline for the VA at 1-800-827-1000.
Veterans seeking treatment outside of the VA network may pursue private treatment. Greenhouse Treatment Center offers veterans-specific treatment in our Salute to Recovery program. At Greenhouse, veterans live and attend treatment with other military members to build a supportive community of people who understand one another.
In some cases, the VA allows non-VA care providers to treat veterans when the VA is unable to offer the necessary care. As part of their Community Care Program, the VA authorizes certain providers as community care providers. Greenhouse is a VA community care provider, meaning that in many cases we can treat veterans who need help for addiction and co-occurring conditions at minimal cost.
You are not your illness, and there’s no need for you to suffer one more day. Call us at today to learn how you may be able to receive the care you deserve.
- Department of Western Australia Department of Health. (2009). Stigma, Discrimination, and Mental Illness.
- National Alliance on Mental Health. (n.d.). StigmaFree Me.
- Kaplan, Dorothy A. (2019). Reducing Military Mental Health Stigma to Improve Treatment Engagement: Guidance for Clinicians, Psychological Health Center of Excellence.
- Dingfelder, Sadie F. (2009). The Military’s War on Stigma, American Psychological Association.
- National Alliance on Mental Illness. (2019). Six Myths And Facts About Mental Illness.
- National Alliance on Mental Health. (n.d.). Veterans and Active Duty.
- Kulesza, M., Pedersen, E., Corrigan, P., & Marshall, G. (2015). Help-Seeking Stigma and Mental Health Treatment Seeking Among Young Adult Veterans. Military behavioral health, 3(4), 230–239.
- Better Health Channel. (2015). Stigma, Discrimination, and Mental Illness.