Stigma’s Effects on Veterans’ Mental Health

Veterans suffer from addiction and mental illness at significant rates, but a large portion do not get the help that they need.1 Almost 90% of veterans with a substance use disorder and over 50% with a mental illness do not get treatment for their conditions.1 Stigma is one explanation for why so many vets go without the proper treatment.

Stigma in the Military

Servicemember's face

Stigma is the experience of being labeled as part of a group and attaching negative attitudes and beliefs to the label.2Stigma is common with mental illness. In fact, 75% of people dealing with a mental illness report feeling stigmatized by others.2

The person experiencing stigma may experience shame, hopelessness, isolation, and unfair treatment or discrimination.2 They may also internalize the stigma, meaning that they start to believe that there is something wrong with them because of their mental illness.3

Military culture can contribute to stigmas surrounding addiction and mental health. The military emphasizes masculinity, self-sufficiency, and the ability to rely on fellow service members.4 Military members may fail to seek help for a problem because they fear how others in the military will view them. Service members report worrying that they would be perceived as “weak” and that their peers and leaders may treat them differently if they seek help.4

Other common but false stigmas that may keep a veteran from asking for help include the following:2,11

  • People with addiction or mental health problems are dangerous or manipulative.
  • PTSD is a sign of weakness.
  • People who suffer a mental disorder could just pull themselves out if it if they really wanted to.
  • Overcoming addiction is a matter of willpower. People who are addicted could stop but choose not to.

An article in the American Psychological Association’s Monitor quoted military psychologist Lt. Justin D’Arienzo, PsyD, who shared that many service members sought help from him “off the record.”5 Because they feared the stigma of formally speaking with a psychologist, many looked for informal opportunities to talk about their mental health struggles.

Stigma about treatment can have negative consequences for military service members and veterans. Stigma may: 6,7

  • Prevent people from seeking the help that they need.
  • Lower job performance.
  • Lead to depression.

Where Does Stigma Come From?

Stigma can come from society or specific people in or outside of a group. Veterans and military service members who suffer from substance abuse or mental health issues may experience stigma from civilians or other military personnel. Media portrayals of people with addictions or mental health issues in movies, television, and books can also contribute to stigma.8

Vets and service members who experience stigma from others can develop self-stigma. Self-stigma happens when people internalize and believe negative attitudes about themselves that they perceive from others, or from society.4,8,9 For example, vets who seek help for alcoholism and PTSD may start to believe that they are weak for suffering from these conditions and that they should be able to get over them with no outside help.

Self-stigma can lead to emotional problems like depression and anxiety, shame, low self-esteem, and isolation from others.4,8,9 People who develop self-stigma are less likely to get treatment for health issues and pursue opportunities like job promotions.9

Stigmas About Addiction & Veterans’ Mental Health

Stigmas surrounding addiction and mental health are rampant. This form of stigma is called “sanism.”10 Like other forms of stigma, sanism can lead to discrimination and other negative effects on a person’s quality of life.10

Negative attitudes like “crazy,” “moody,” “unpredictable,” and “weak” are often associated with mental illness.10 An Australian study found that around 25% of people believed that people with depression were weak, and over 40% believed that they were unpredictable.2 The same study revealed even greater stigmatizing attitudes toward people with schizophrenia. Over 60% of people surveyed felt that people with schizophrenia were unpredictable and 25% believed that they were dangerous.2

The reality is that people with mental health issues are more likely to be victims of violence rather than commit violence.10 In the United States, only 5% of violent crimes are committed by people with serious mental health issues.10

Negative attitudes associated with addiction include that it is a sign of “moral weakness,” “overindulgence,” and a “lack of willpower.”11 The truth is that addiction is a serious health condition.11 A person may start out using drugs or alcohol voluntarily, but over time substance abuse causes changes to the brain that can lead to a loss of control over use.12

Veterans face many of the same stigmas surrounding mental illness and addiction.12 Because military personnel are expected to always be “strong,” dealing with addiction and mental health issues can be perceived negatively by other service members and civilians. These negative attitudes keep many veterans from getting the help they need.13

Stigma May Hinder Treatment

Man with head in hands

Among veterans, substance abuse and mental health issues are common, but a majority of veterans will not get help for their conditions.1 Stigma plays a significant role in stopping people from getting treatment.6 Vets who perceive stigma around treatment are less likely to seek help.6 If they do seek treatment, they may be more likely to miss appointments, not comply with the treatment plan, or drop out prematurely.14

Vets may not get help because they fear being labeled as “mentally ill” or an “addict” and being judged, rejected, or discriminated against by others.6 If vets do get help in spite of this stigma, they may find that their fears are unfounded. They may be surprised to learn that people are supportive of their decision to seek help.

Veterans tend to get treatment for physical health issues, but still fear mental health treatment. 13 People with heart problems usually do not fear that they will be judged for poor diet or lack of exercise, but when it comes to mental health, there is fear that their symptoms will be attributed to who they are as a person.

Even though many vets believe that there is a stigma about getting help, only a small number report that they would judge another veteran for getting the care they need.6 Mental health and addiction advocates are working to normalize these conditions and encourage people to get the help that they need.

Failing to get help for these issues can negatively impact the quality of vets’ lives.14 For veterans who are willing to persevere despite stigma, treatment options specifically designed for their needs are available.

Substance Abuse Help for Veterans at Desert Hope

Desert Hope is an American Addictions Centers’ facility in Las Vegas, Nevada that offers a unique treatment program created specifically for unique treatment program created specifically to provide care for co-occurring disorders, such as PTSD and substance abuse, in veterans. If you or veteran looking to receive care for substance abuse and other mental health issues such as PTSD in an environment where you won’t feel judged, Desert Hope is the place for you.

At Desert Hope, veterans are housed and treated together, which allows you to connect with a community of people who understand what you have been through. Therapists at our facility understand how military service impacts addiction and mental health. Our therapists are trained in evidenced-based therapies like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR). They also teach coping skills, communication skills, and anger management techniques. As part of the veterans’ program, your days will consist of individual, group, and family therapy and 12-step support groups.

Desert Hope is an approved community care provider through the VA. If you’re eligible for the community care program, you may be able to use your benefits through TriWest, which administers the VA’s community care program in the western United States, to receive treatment at Desert Hope. The cost of treatment for you would be the same as treatment through the VA. You may have a small copay and may be able to use any additional benefits you have, including TRICARE coverage.

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  1. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2020). 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Veterans.
  2. Government of Western Australia, Department of Health. (2009). Stigma, discrimination, and mental illness.
  3. National Alliance on Mental Illness. (2020). StigmaFree me.
  4. 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.
  5. Dingfelder, S. (2009). The military’s war on stigma. Monitor, 40(6), 52.
  6. 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.
  7. Hilliard, R. (2019). Survey: Nearly half of first responders fear stigma over counseling. NBC News 25.
  8. Corrigan, P. W., & Watson, A. C. (2002). The paradox of self?stigma and mental illness. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 9(1), 35-53.
  9. 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.
  10. Ross, S. L. (2019). Six myths and facts about mental illness. National Alliance on Mental Illness.
  11. U.S. Department of Health & Humans Services, Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation. (1999). Blending perspectives and building common ground. Myths and facts about addiction and treatment.
  12. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2018). Understanding drug use and addiction drugfacts.
  13. Greene-Shortridge, T. M., Britt, T. W., & Castro, C. A. (2007). The stigma of mental health problems in the military. Military Medicine, 172(2), 157-161.
  14. 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.
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