Today is Veterans Day in the U.S., a day to give thanks and honor all who serve our country in the military. While the military has made great strides in recent years in acknowledging the mental health problems of vets, vets still face an uphill challenge when they seek mental health services.
Two articles last week discussed some of these challenges. The stigma and perceptions regarding mental health concerns can still be extreme within the military, noted the West Seattle Herald:
When Chris Hill was honorably discharged from the U.S. Marine Corps in 1982, he made sure to remove the medical records in his permanent file about his visits to a psychiatrist. Hill, who was experiencing severe anxiety attacks, was afraid to be labeled as a veteran with psychiatric problems.
“I was embarrassed about it at the time,” says Hill, who now works as a mental health counselor for the Jefferson Center for Mental Health in Wheat Ridge, Colorado. “There was a stigma in my own mind about it being bad to get psychiatric help. As a Marine, I didn’t want to appear weak.”
Hill’s feelings are commonplace both amongst soldiers and officers. But more and more soldiers like Hill are now speaking out against the culture of silence in the military. Take, for instance, Army Maj. General David Blackledge’s story, as reported by the Associated Press:
Blackledge got psychiatric counseling to deal with wartime trauma, and now he is defying the military’s culture of silence on the subject of mental health problems and treatment.
“It’s part of our profession … nobody wants to admit that they’ve got a weakness in this area,” Blackledge said of mental health problems among troops returning from America’s two wars.
It’s estimated that up to 20% of returning men and women who served in Iraq and Afghanistan (300,000 people) have clinical symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder, depression or anxiety. Many of those would qualify for a full blown diagnosis and should be getting treatment.
But treatment barriers still exist, and the biggest remains the stigma surrounding seeking treatment for a mental health concern. Vets fear the mark it will leave on their record and how it will affect their ability to attain future promotions and assignments. For good reason, too, because the military has a history of using such treatment against soldiers and officers.
Military personnel who return home in a rural area also face the challenge of having access to a treatment center close to them. Luckily, that particular treatment gap will likely be filled. On October 10, the President signed a law that mandates that the Veterans Administration should contract with outside organizations to offer mental health care to vets in rural areas who don’t have convenient access to a VA center.
While we may not always agree with the actions of the government that determines where the military is deployed, we should support the brave men and women who put their lives on the line for us everyday. Theirs is a largely thankless job, and they deserve not only the best health care available, but also the best mental health care as well. I think the tide is slowly turning where talking about mental health concerns in uniform is no longer an automatic black mark. But it’s going to take more time and the efforts of more people like Chris Hill and David Blackledge to pry open this culture of silence.
Read the SeattlePI story: An Unspoken Illness Among Veterans
Read the Associated Press story: General bucks culture of silence on mental health