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Does Stigma Have You Cornered? Regain Control, Seek Help for Your Mental Health

A group of soldiers engage in conversation around a table
Soldiers participate in a Stigma Reduction Communications Campaign workshop. The SRCC's goal is to combat perceived stigmas soldiers face when dealing with personal issues associated with seeking professional help. (U.S. Army photo by Spc. Jennifer Andersson)

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.


Comments (5)

  • Chris Waters 12 Feb

    I truly appreciate that the US Government and Military is addressing this subject. There is such a bifurcation between medical and mental health and wellness. This is one of foundational principles for the stigmatization. I have found that there are 2 significant ways to address stigmas:

    1. Although it may sound simple yet, reclassifying our term from "Mental Illness" to "Mental Health and Wellness" not only removes stigmas it normalizes how we look at and treat our mental well being and desire to be a "normal" individual. If we address the whole person as a "proactive" effort, we see the goal as "healthology-focus" verses "pathology-focus".

    We develop a lifestyle focused upon mental health and well being (as opposed to being dysfunction or mentally ill). With my clients, I correlate that when we believe we are coming down with a cold we take our temperature. If it is elevated we may take an aspirin; however, that does not address the reason the body elevated its temperature. With psychotherapy, I look at many instances of depression and anxiety as the mental "thermometer" gauging our mental well being. If we take any medication or treat the depression and anxiety we may miss treating the underlying causes.

    2. This leads into my second point of "integrative medicine." We see a direct correlation between integrating medical and psychotherapy, within the same facility, producing higher retention rates, less focus on what a client or patient is seeking treatment for, and most importantly, elevates quality of care.

    The bottom line is a needed paradigm shift in vocabulary, approach to lifestyle educational goals (physical and mental health and wellness, and how we train our providers (healthology verse pathology)
  • DCoE Public Affairs 13 Feb

    @Chris, This is a really important topic, and we appreciate you taking the time to share your thoughts with us.
  • Dennis Colvin 24 Feb

    I'm a Viet-Nam veteran, and if you're a Viet-Nam veteran, you become automatically stigmatized the moment you arrive back home. If you tell someone you're a Viet-Nam vet with PTSD then that alone reinforces the stigmatization of you.
  • Juliann Johnson 24 Feb

    I am a veteran who was ashamed to let anyone know that I was having mental issues in the eighties (80's) when I was in the military, because I loved my time I was spending as an active duty member.  I believed that society (military) would not treat me fairly and that I would be discharged before I completed my service, so I suffered through and kept it to myself.  My children suffered, coworkers suffered if a situation irritated my condition, I could not commit to a relationship with a man, my career did not progress because I could or did not learn in a learning environment and I did not know why.  I could not learn how to run an aircraft engine and my lieutenant thought I needed negative counseling because I failed the engine course.  Subordinates suffered, but I tried to keep up the charade each time I had a flare up.  I finally had to in my new job come out of the closet when I got sick and was diagnosed as bipolar, PTSD manic depressive.  I still got stigmatized and abused by management as faking my illness that put me out of work twice for 6 and 9 months respectively. 
  • DCoE Public Affairs 26 Feb

    @Juliann, Unfortunately, your experience is too often a common reaction and the reason why many service members and veterans worry about seeking help for mental health concerns. Although mental health-related stigma exists, the best thing you can do for yourself is to seek help which means working with your health provider to find the right treatment for you. The Defense Department continues to work to educate people about PTSD and change military culture. Service members and veterans who share their experiences with mental health concerns help inspire others to seek help. Thank you for sharing and for your service.


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