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Reducing the Stigma of Mental Health Care in Veterans

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Updated June 24, 2009

Many people avoid seeking out help for psychological problems because of the perceived stigma associated with needing mental health care. This may particularly be the case for military service members.

OEF/OIF soldiers face a number of highly stressful situations, including deployment, combat exposure, and reintegration. Given this, it is really not that surprising that OEF/OIF veterans are showing high rates of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), alcohol use, ">depression, anger management problems, physical health problems, and suicide). However, many do not seek out treatment for these difficulties. In fact, one study found that only about half get treatment.

Stigma - A Barrier to Seeking Treatment

According to an article in the American Psychological Association's Monitor on Psychology, a major reason many service members do not seek out treatment is the stigma associated with receiving mental health care. Many service members are worried that disclosing psychological difficulties or seeking out mental health treatment will negatively affect their military careers. However, the consequences of not seeking out treatment can be dire. Untreated psychological difficulties may only get worse and could have a major impact on a soldier's ability to perform in combat or at home when they return from duty.

What is Being Done to Combat Stigma

The Department of Defense has recognized that stigma is a major problem in the armed forces, and as a result, every branch of the military is taking steps to combat the stigma associated with mental health problems and seeking out treatment.

For example, to limit fear that the report of psychological difficulties will negatively impact security clearance, the Department of Defense no longer requires people to report if they have sought out mental health care for combat-related reasons. In addition, high ranking military personnel are sharing their experiences with PTSD and the treatment they received. The Department of Defense is also attempting to convey that the experience of stress as a result of combat-related experiences is normal.

Finally, the Department of Defense launched an anti-stigma campaign called the Real Warriors Campaign. This campaign is designed to promote resilience, recovery, and support for returning service members, veterans, and their families.

Getting Help

If you are a returning service member in need of mental health services, it is important to go to your local VA for help. Services are available. You can also find useful information on getting help at the websites of the National Center for PTSD and Anxiety Disorder Association of America. If you need to find a psychiatrist, visit About.com's UCompare Healthcare to locate one in your area.

Sources:

Dingfelder, S. F. (2009). War on stigma. Monitor on Psychology, 40, 53-55.

Erbes, C., Westermeyer, J., Engdahl, B., & Johnsen, E. (2007). Post-traumatic stress disorder and service utilization in a sample of service members from Iraq and Afghanistan. Military Medicine, 172, 359-363.

Hoge, C.W., Castro, C.A., Messer, S.C., McGurk, D., Cotting, D.I., & Koffman, R.L. (2004). Combat duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, mental health problems, and barriers to care. New England Journal of Medicine, 351, 13-22.

Jakupcak, M., Conybeare, D., Phelps, L., Hunt, S., Holmes, H.A., Felker, B., Klevens, M., & McFall, M.E. (2007). Anger, hostility, and aggression among Iraq and Afghanistan War veterans reporting PTSD and subthreshold PTSD. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 20, 945-954.

Jakupcak, M., Luterek, J., Hunt, S., Conbeare, D., & McFall, M. (2008). Posttraumatic stress and its relationship to physical health functioning in a sample of Iraq and Afghanistan War veterans seeking postdeployment VA health care. Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 196, 425-428.

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