Veterans and Mental Health Stigma

Written by The Recovery Village

& Medically Reviewed by Dr. Kevin Wandler, MD

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Last Updated - 06/25/2024

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Key Takeaways

  • Mental health stigma leads to negative stereotypes and discrimination, deterring veterans from seeking help.
  • Veterans face a higher incidence of mental health disorders such as PTSD, depression, and substance use disorders.
  • Stigma is deeply rooted in military culture, with a ‘tough it out’ mentality that views mental health issues as weaknesses.
  • Efforts to reduce stigma include educational programs, policy changes, and campaigns like Real Warriors and Mental Health First Aid.
  • Stigma’s psychological impact on veterans includes shame, isolation, and reduced self-esteem, hindering help-seeking behavior.
  • Societal consequences of stigma for veterans include discrimination, social exclusion, and reduced opportunities.
  • Combating stigma requires multifaceted efforts, including increasing mental health literacy and promoting positive recovery narratives.
  • The evolving role of mental health professionals involves integrated care and collaboration to address veterans’ complex needs.
  • Societal engagement in reducing stigma is crucial, involving advocacy, education, and sharing personal success stories.
  • Strategies for mitigating stigma in veterans include provider actions, public campaigns, policy work, and collaborations across departments.

Mental health stigma is a societal phenomenon where individuals with mental health conditions are subjected to negative stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination. This stigma can manifest in various forms, including:

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  • Public Stigma: Public stigma involves the collective negative beliefs and reactions of society toward people with mental health issues. 
  • Self-Stigma: Self-stigma occurs when individuals internalize these societal attitudes, leading to feelings of shame and reduced self-esteem. 
  • Associative Stigma: Associative stigma affects the friends and family of those with mental health disorders, 
  • Structural Stigma: Structural stigma is reflected in institutional policies and practices that limit opportunities for individuals with mental health conditions.

Consequences of Mental Health Stigma for Veterans

For veterans, the consequences of mental health stigma can be particularly severe. Stigma can deter them from seeking help due to the fear of being perceived as weak or unfit, which is compounded by the “tough it out” mentality often ingrained in military culture. The reluctance to seek assistance not only exacerbates their mental health conditions but also affects their social reintegration and quality of life. Research has shown that targeted interventions, such as education and contact with affected individuals, can significantly improve attitudes towards mental health and reduce the desire for social distancing.

Addressing mental health stigma requires a multifaceted approach that includes increasing mental health literacy, promoting positive narratives of recovery, and ensuring access to quality mental health care. By challenging the misconceptions and fostering an environment of understanding and support, we can help veterans and others with mental health conditions lead more fulfilling lives free from the constraints of stigma.

The Prevalence of Mental Health Issues in Veterans

The prevalence of mental health issues among veterans is a critical concern, with evidence indicating a higher incidence of mental health disorders in this population compared to the general public. 

Research highlights that veterans are at a significant risk for 

  • Depression
  • Substance use disorders (SUDs)
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Suicide

Alarmingly, approximately 21 veterans die by suicide daily, a rate 50% higher than the civilian population. Female veterans, in particular, experience a 50% higher incidence of suicide than their civilian counterparts.

Mental Health Triggers for Veterans

Factors contributing to this increased prevalence include the stressors of military service, such as combat exposure, separation from support systems, and the challenges of reintegration into civilian life. Additionally, a study involving Operation Iraqi Freedom/Operation Enduring Freedom (OIF/OEF) veterans with PTSD showed a higher number of medical diagnoses compared to veterans without mental health conditions, with a notable correlation between PTSD and chronic pain, which is associated with an increased risk of alcohol use disorder (AUD).

Challenges in Data Collection

Understanding the prevalence of mental health issues is further complicated by changes in diagnostic criteria and the fact that not all veterans receive care through the Veterans Affairs (VA) system. However, efforts to improve data collection and reporting, such as the work of the Interagency Task Force on Military and Veterans Mental Health (ITF), are crucial for advancing personalized treatment and prevention strategies.

It is essential to continue addressing the mental health needs of veterans through enhanced access to care, collaborative efforts between the VA and community providers, and ongoing mental health research to develop effective treatment methodologies.

Common Mental Health Disorders Among Veterans

Veterans often face unique mental health challenges due to their experiences during service. Research conducted by the Department of Veterans Affairs and other institutions has identified several common mental health disorders that affect veterans at higher rates than the general population, including:

  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Substance use disorders (SUDs)
  • Schizophrenia
  • Bipolar disorder

A study published in the American Journal of Public Health found that over 1.1 million veterans were diagnosed with at least one of these conditions, highlighting the significant impact of mental health issues within this community.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in Veterans

PTSD is particularly prevalent among veterans due to exposure to traumatic events during military service. It often co-occurs with other conditions, such as chronic pain, which can lead to a higher risk of alcohol use disorder (AUD). Depression and anxiety are also common and can be worsened by the stressors of combat, separation from support systems, and the transition to civilian life. Additionally, veterans face a heightened risk of suicide, with studies indicating that veterans’ suicide rates are significantly higher than those of the civilian population.

Understanding these disorders and their prevalence is crucial for providing targeted support and treatment to veterans. Efforts such as the VA’s Patient Aligned Care Team (PACT) model, which focuses on coordinated care and various suicide prevention initiatives, aim to address these mental health challenges and improve outcomes for veterans.

Addressing Mental Health Stigma within Military Culture

Mental health stigma in the military is a significant barrier that prevents service members from seeking the help they need. The cultural misperception that military personnel must be infallible to be mission-ready fosters an environment where mental health issues are often viewed as weaknesses. This stigma is deeply rooted in military culture, where there is a strong ‘tough it out’ mentality, and admitting to mental health struggles is often seen as a vulnerability that could jeopardize one’s career and standing within the armed forces.

Efforts to Reduce Mental Health Stigma in the Military

Efforts to reduce stigma and encourage mental health care in the military require a multi-layered approach. 

Increasing Awareness

Programs like Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) and campaigns such as the Department of Defense’s Real Warriors have been established to increase awareness and support for service members dealing with mental health issues. However, despite these initiatives, the fear of personal and professional embarrassment, concerns over job security, and the potential for discrimination continue to deter individuals from seeking the assistance they need.

Policy Updates

Policy changes have been recommended to remove stigmatizing language and provide clearer guidelines that support service members’ mental health without compromising their privacy or mission readiness. The RAND Corporation has emphasized the importance of aligning the US Department of Defense’s stigma-reduction efforts with best practices to continue the progress in changing attitudes towards mental health within the military.

Shifting Perception

Ultimately, addressing mental health stigma in the military culture goes beyond policy and requires a shift in the overall perception of mental health within the armed forces. This includes fostering an environment where seeking help is seen as a sign of strength and essential to maintaining the force’s readiness.

Stigma’s Influence on Veterans’ Help-Seeking for Mental Health

The stigma surrounding mental health is a significant barrier that prevents veterans from seeking the help they need. Research consistently shows that stigma—whether internalized as self-stigma or perceived by others—can lead to reluctance in pursuing mental health services. A systematic review from Psychological Medicine highlights the negative impact of stigma on help-seeking behavior.

Forms of Stigma Veterans Face

Stigma manifests in various forms, including negative attitudes towards seeking help and a subjective sense of harm to self-esteem, as noted in studies published by SAGE Journals

Effects of Stigma on Veterans

This can lead to feelings of shame, isolation, and a fear of being judged, which are particularly prevalent in the veteran community due to the military’s “tough it out” culture. The societal misunderstanding and discrimination that often accompany mental health issues only exacerbate the problem.

Efforts to Reduce Stigma

Despite the challenges, efforts to reduce stigma and encourage help-seeking are gaining traction. The COVID-19 pandemic, for instance, has prompted a global conversation about mental health, potentially reducing stigma and fostering a more open environment for seeking help, as suggested by commentary in the BMJ. Telehealth services are also emerging as a stigma-free means of accessing mental health support. These developments offer hope for veterans and others affected by mental health stigma.

Consequences of Mental Health Stigma for Veterans

Mental health stigma has profound implications for veterans, often serving as a barrier to seeking and receiving the necessary care. The stigma associated with mental health within the military and veteran communities can lead to a variety of adverse outcomes, both psychological and societal. 

Psychological Effects

Yale researchers have found that even mild anxiety symptoms in veterans are linked to significant psychiatric and functional difficulties, including suicidal thoughts and behaviors. This suggests that early identification and treatment of anxiety symptoms could be crucial in preventing more severe mental health issues among veterans.

Importance of Screening

Furthermore, a study by the US Department of Veterans Affairs National Center for PTSD highlights the importance of screening for mental health issues, as many veterans do not engage in treatment despite the availability of mental health care services. The perceived stigma can result in feelings of shame, isolation, and low self-esteem, which are significant psychological effects that can hinder veterans from seeking help. Societal effects include discrimination and misunderstanding, which can exacerbate the challenges faced by veterans.

Attempts to Combat Mental Health Stigma

Efforts to combat mental health stigma have included integrating mental health care with primary care, fostering a supportive culture within the military, and providing veteran-specific programs aimed at reducing stigma. Despite these efforts, studies indicate that a significant number of veterans with mental health needs still do not seek the care they require, with stigma being a potential contributing factor. Addressing this stigma is therefore essential for improving the mental well-being and quality of life of veterans.

Psychological Impacts of Stigma on Veterans

The psychological effects of stigma on veterans are multifaceted and deeply impactful. As a powerful social phenomenon, stigma can lead to:

  • Discrimination
  • Expectancy confirmation
  • Automatic stereotype activation 

For veterans who may already be coping with mental health disorders such as PTSD, depression, and anxiety, the added burden of stigma can exacerbate feelings of shame, isolation, and lower self-esteem. This can create significant barriers to seeking help, as the fear of being judged or misunderstood by others can deter individuals from accessing the mental health care they need.

Stigma in the Work Environment

Stigma can also manifest in the workplace, where misconceptions about mental health can lead to reduced employment opportunities and lack of support from employers and colleagues. The societal misunderstanding of mental health issues further contributes to the veterans’ sense of isolation and can hinder their reintegration into the community. 

Combating Mental Health Stigma

Efforts to combat stigma, therefore, must include educational initiatives that dispel myths, promote understanding, and encourage empathetic support. Research has shown that interventions combining education with personal contact can significantly improve attitudes towards mental health and reduce the desire for social distancing.

Humanizing Veterans’ Struggles

Moreover, initiatives that involve the sharing of personal stories and successes can help humanize the struggles associated with mental health conditions, fostering a more inclusive and supportive environment for veterans. 

It is crucial for mental health professionals, employers, and society at large to recognize the detrimental effects of stigma and to actively engage in strategies that promote mental health literacy, access to care, and the empowerment of veterans living with mental health conditions.

Societal Consequences of Mental Health Stigma for Veterans

Mental health stigma has far-reaching consequences in society, particularly for veterans who may face unique challenges upon returning to civilian life. 

Manifestations of Stigma

Stigma can manifest in various forms, including:

  • Discrimination
  • Social exclusion
  • Perpetuation of stereotypes

These manifestations can hinder a veteran’s reintegration and access to necessary support and resources. Studies have shown that anti-stigma interventions, such as education and personal contact, can improve attitudes towards mental health and reduce the desire for social distancing, thus facilitating better outcomes for those affected.

Systematic Exclusion as a Result of Stigma

Societal stigma can systematically exclude individuals from opportunities such as:

  • Education
  • Housing

This exclusion exacerbates inequalities. The effects of stigma are not only immediate but also have long-term impacts on mental health, as evidenced by neuroscience research that associates stigma with changes in brain function and mental well-being. The role of stigma in maintaining power structures and perpetuating inequality is a critical aspect that needs addressing to foster a more inclusive society.

Efforts to Combat Stigma

Efforts to combat stigma, such as those undertaken by mental health institutions and non-profit organizations, aim to:

  • Improve mental health literacy
  • Enhance care access
  • Promote the reintegration of individuals with mental health conditions into the community

These efforts must be supported and expanded to ensure that veterans receive the understanding and assistance they deserve, thus mitigating the societal effects of mental health stigma.

Combating Mental Health Stigma Among Veterans

The stigma associated with mental health issues presents a significant barrier for veterans seeking necessary care. Efforts to combat this stigma are crucial in fostering a supportive environment that encourages veterans to pursue mental health services without fear of judgment or repercussions. 

Communicative Strategies and Understanding

Research highlights the communicative strategies veterans with PTSD utilize to manage stigma, emphasizing the need for understanding and coping mechanisms.

VA Efforts and Programs

Addressing mental health stigma within the military and veteran communities involves several approaches. The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has been actively working to meet the increasing demand for mental health services, which may indicate a positive shift in help-seeking behavior. Key programs include: 

  • Readjustment Counseling Service/Vet Center 
  • Veteran Cultural Competence Training 

Both of these programs aim to decrease stigma and increase engagement with mental health services.

Programmatic and Policy Approaches to Ending Stigma

The RAND Corporation identifies promising programmatic and policy approaches to reduce stigma, and the Department of Defense has implemented programs aligned with best practices, contributing to a decline in self-reported stigma. Additionally, the ‘no wrong door approach’ to behavioral health services by the DOD and policies like the Brandon Act streamline access to mental health care, showing a commitment to destigmatization.

Overall, these multifaceted efforts reflect a growing understanding of the importance of mental health care and the need to eradicate stigma, thereby improving the well-being of veterans and service members.

Strategies for Mitigating Mental Health Stigma in Veterans

Efforts to diminish mental health stigma among veterans are critical to improving their access to care and overall well-being. Recent initiatives have focused on a multi-pronged approach, including individual provider actions, public awareness campaigns such as the Department of Defense’s (DOD) Real Warriors, and policy work. For example, the Brandon Act enables servicemembers to confidentially seek mental health care, aiming to reduce stigma.

Collaborative Efforts to Reduce Mental Health Stigma for Veterans

Furthermore, collaborations across various departments, like DOD, Health and Human Services (HHS), and Veterans Affairs (VA), are crucial. They work on strategies such as lethal means of safety to prevent suicide and improve emergency care responses. Mental health literacy and help-seeking behaviors are promoted through educational programs and community leader training, especially in rural areas with high veteran populations.

Support Services and Resources

  • Stigma reduction toolkits and specialized coaching services, such as inTransition, support active-duty service members and veterans during care transitions. 
  • The use of person-first language by providers and respect for patients’ language preferences can also foster a more supportive environment.

Future Strategies to Mitigate Stigma 

Future strategies may involve further policy changes, educational outreach, and enhanced support services to ensure veterans receive the care they need without the barrier of stigma. Continual evaluation of these efforts is essential to adapt and improve the effectiveness of stigma-reducing programs.

Compassionate Addiction Care for Veterans 

If you’re a military veteran seeking addiction treatment, The Recovery Village Cherry Hill at Cooper is here to help. We are a part of the VA Community Care Network, and we offer a trauma-informed program designed for veterans and first responders. Contact a Veteran Advocate today to learn more or to get started with treatment.


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