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Veterans’ Mental Health and the Impact of Stigma
Members of the military choose to commit their lives to the country, its people, and what it stands for, through their service. In doing so, they put their relationships, safety, health, and even their lives on the line.
One issue that can put former service members’ health, safety, and lives at risk is addiction and mental illness. And while veterans deal with mental illness and addiction at significant rates, many of them do not obtain the support and help that they need to address those challenges.1 In fact, almost 90% of veterans diagnosed with a substance use disorder (SUD) and almost 54% of veterans with any mental illness did not receive any treatment for their disorders.1 So why do so many veterans not receive treatment for their addiction or mental illness? One reason could be stigma.
What is Stigma?
Stigma involves being labeled as part of a group and having negative beliefs and attitudes connected to that lable.2 Stigma can be experienced by those struggling with mental illness, and once a person is labled by that illness it can be difficult for others to view them as separate from that.2
Stigma can bring about troubling feelings and experiences, including the following:2
- Loneliness and isolation
- Discrimination in housing, employment, or services
The negative attitudes that result from stigma can lead to prejudice, which can then lead to discrimination.2 This can be a problem in the military, both for current and former service members, because the fear of discrimination that could result from being labeled by mental illness leads many to avoid pursuing treatment.
Stigma can be directed at service members and veterans by civilians or other members of the military. It can also be self-directed, via self-stigma, which occurs when people take in and believe negative attitudes that are being directed at them.3-5 Veterans can develop emotional problems from self-stigma, including anxiety and depression.3-5 Upon taking on those negative judgements and attitudes, veterans then become less likely to pursue treatment for their mental health issues.5
Mental Health Stigma & Veterans
In the general public, as in the military, there is stigma associated with mental illness. People with mental health issues are sometimes viewed as “crazy,” “moody,” “violent,” and “weak.”6 In addition to the desire to avoid negative perceptions of mental health conditions and treatment, veterans also may avoid care because they have concerns about keeping their careers and do not want to be on medication.7 Mental illness, though, is not weakness; rather, it is a mental health issue and needs to be treated as such.
One major challenge when it comes to stigma and mental health in the military is how the very culture of the military can create and reinforce stigma regarding the seeking of treatment for those mental health issues. In the military, there is importance placed on the actions of the group to achieve objectives above everything else; the cultures of reliance on each other, masculinity, self-sufficiency, and negative views of being ill or not doing one’s share.3 With specific rules and conduct expected of service members, it can become more difficult to seek help. This same stigma that exist in the military may then also continue into civilian life, impacting veterans as well.3 Stigma and military culture can lead to service members who are afraid to seek treatment services for their mental health.9
Despite existing challenges, the military is well aware of the impact that stigma has on its service members and veterans receiving the mental health and addiction treatment they deserve. For over 10 years, the military has been funding programs meant to identify, address, and reduce military stigma when it comes to mental health.9 While there has been progress, the shift in perception and culture can be slow and it is possible it will take a long time for there to be significant changes.
Mental Health and Addiction Treatment Obstacles
Stigma has played, and continues to play, a major role in preventing people from obtaining treatment for substance abuse and mental health issues.8 Veterans may choose to avoid treatment out of fear that they will be rejected or discriminated against because they have been labeled as mentally ill or an addict.8
Veterans who believe that there is stigma about getting treatment will be less likely to pursue it.8 And those who do pursue treatment have an increased likelihood of missing appointments, not following treatment plans, or ceasing treatment prematurely.10
Still, while many veterans believe that there is stigma around getting treatment, very few of them report that they would judge another service member or veteran for getting help for addiction or mental health issues.8
The fear that their career will suffer, treatment won’t work, or that they’ll be perceived as weak prevents many veterans from seeking treatment, but treatment is what provides veterans with a path to a life where their addiction and mental health issues can be addressed and they can find the health and happiness they deserve.
Strategies for Overcoming Stigma
While there are continuing issues of stigma when it comes to addiction and mental health issues, treatment is still the most effective way to improve your life—and maybe even save it. Here are some strategies for moving beyond stigma.11
- Get support from others.
- Attempt to ignore others’ judgments/perceptions.
- Disregard inaccurate information.
- Remember that you are not your illness.
- Pursue the help that you need.
Mental Health and Addiction Treatment at AAC
When it comes to pursuing treatment, Veterans Affairs (VA) provides veterans with high-quality care for addiction and mental health issues. To find VA locations, you can use the VA’s locator tool.
There are times, however, when VA is either unable to provide the needed services or cannot provide them in a timely manner. That is why the MISSION Act was introduced. The MISSION Act provides veterans with increased access to health care from both VA facilities and from community general care providers, and American Addiction Centers (AAC) is one of those approved community care providers.12
AAC is made up of the United States’ largest network of substance abuse treatment centers. AAC is an authorized community network care provider that has partnered with VA to offer private mental health and substance abuse treatment at two locations: Desert Hope and Recovery First.
Both facilities have programs, Salute to Recovery, designed specifically to treat veterans dealing with both substance abuse and mental health disorders. The Salute to Recovery program provides a safe environment where veterans receive treatment surrounded by other veterans, including many of the staff members, with similar struggles and experiences. These shared feelings and experiences provide veterans with the opportunity to feel more heard and comfortable. The program focuses on areas that are specific to the experiences and needs of veterans, including:
- Military culture.
- Family and relationships.
- Post-traumatic responses.
- Character and values.
- The Impact of Stress
- Cognitive distortions.
The treatment teams at both facilities offer treatment methods including conflict resolution, coping skills, anger management, family and couples counseling, and proven therapies.
When it comes to addiction and mental health issues for veterans, both the military and the public need to work to move beyond stigma and recognize that both issues need treatment—not judgment. Veterans have done so much for our country, and now is our chance to do something for them.
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2020). 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Veterans.
- Government of Western Australia, Department of Health. (2009). Stigma, Discrimination, and Mental Illness.
- 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.
- Corrigan, P. W., & Watson, A. C. (2002). The paradox of self‐stigma and mental illness. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 9(1), 35-53.
- Corrigan, P. W., & Rao, D. (2012). On the self-stigma of mental illness: Stages, disclosure, and strategies for change. The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, 57(8), 464-469.
- Ross, S. L. (2019). Six myths and facts about mental illness. National Alliance on Mental Illness.
- Kime, P. (2015). Panel: Stigma is obstacle to mental health care. Military Times.
- 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.
- Dingfelder, Sadie F. (2009). The Military’s War on Stigma, American Psychological Association.
- Acosta, J. D., Becker, A., Cerully, J., Fisher, M. P., Martin, L. T., Vardavas, R., Slaughter, M. E., & Schell, T. L. (2014). Mental health stigma in the military. RAND Corporation.
- Better Health Channel. (2015). Stigma, Discrimination, and Mental Illness.
- U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (2020). VA MISSION Act.