Have you experienced mental health-related stigma? Some describe it as the crushing feeling of shame, fear of ridicule or embarrassment felt at the very thought of seeking mental health care. As you can imagine, this stigma is a major barrier to care and treatment for service members and veterans who experience psychological health concerns, such as posttraumatic stress, depression or substance abuse.
You’ve probably heard people say that only “weak” people talk about their problems or that “real soldiers” handle their own business. Perhaps you’ve had thoughts or heard that reaching out for help may adversely affect your career. Are these beliefs true?
The fact is, most of these preconceived notions are perpetuated by fear of the unknown. What will happen if I talk to someone? What will my team leader think of me if he or she knew I was talking to someone about my “issues”? What if my command doesn’t think I’m fit for duty and they take away my security clearance? What if I get a civilian doctor and he or she has no clue about what I’ve been through? What if, what if, what if …
These uncertainties may burden service members, veterans and their families because they don’t know what will happen when they reach out for help.
We can’t predict every outcome for those who seek help, but here’s what we DO know:
- Fear of stigma prevents a service member from seeking help
- Untreated psychological health conditions get progressively worse
- Service members struggling with untreated mental health concerns have a lower level of readiness (sleep issues, relationship problems, lack of attention to detail, physical challenges, etc.)
- Service members not mission-ready affect team, unit and mission effectiveness
Bottom line: an untreated service member (physically or psychologically) has a negative impact on the mission. Getting help can change that, and getting help early improves chances for a successful recovery.
Here’s what Deployment Health Clinical Center Director Navy Capt. Anthony Arita had to say about the fear of stigma in the military:
“Within the military, there are specific concerns in having something documented in your medical record that you have a mental disorder or sought out counseling. There’s often a concern that reaching out for help may be a sign of weakness, an indication you’re letting your comrades down,” explained Arita.
The Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury (DCoE) is working to reduce stigma in the military through awareness and education.
“DCoE initiated an anti-stigma campaign called the Real Warriors Campaign to highlight stories of real people in the military,” said Arita about the initiative. “These service members demonstrated real strength by reaching out for help and being able to say, ‘I’m struggling to the point where I need some professional advice’.”
Arita added that our family and friends can provide support as well.
“Signs of strength are also found in communities who stand by those who are impacted by readjustment needs and contribute to an atmosphere of acceptance. To get at stigma, it’s going to require a change in our culture — one of greater acceptance, one of greater commitment to support for psychological health issues.”
For more on stigma, check out this self-assessment and video profiles of service members who have reached out for support or sought treatment for psychological issues. And, contact the DCoE Outreach Center, available 24/7, to get connected to appropriate health care resources for concerns relating to psychological health or traumatic brain injury.