Every veteran that transitions from military life into the civilian world has to deal with some judgment during their reintegration. You know what I am talking about. Society has preconceived opinions of veterans based on one percent of the population’s actions or the media. We are dangerous! Uneducated! Crazy! Unstable! All of these are labels that continue to haunt generations of veterans. All of these labels couldn’t be further from the truth. Here we are, after more than 18 years of our nation’s most recent and longest war, as we continue to fight battles at home: the war against stigmas associated with what it means to be a veteran and the war inside ourselves.
According to the Veterans Affairs, post 9-11 veterans seek care at the VA more than before. The VA data shows that from 2002 to 2009, one million troops left active duty in Iraq or Afghanistan, becoming eligible for VA care. Of forty-six percent of those soldiers who sought VA services, almost half were diagnosed with mental health conditions. The unfortunate fact is that there are many more veterans out there who have never sought care because of the stigmas associated with our brain.
As a veteran of the Army who has been diagnosed with both traumatic brain injury (TBI) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), I understand firsthand why veterans do not seek help. We don’t want to be seen as helpless, soft, different, and we certainly don’t want our families, friends, or colleagues to lose confidence in us.
Veterans deal with stigmas every day as they transition into their new civilian lives, whether it is through social judgment or from self-stigmas or negative perceptions. The gap continues to widen between military veterans’ experiences and civilians' understanding. Recent research shows that over seventy percent of veterans feel that civilians do not understand the problems they face, and over seventy percent of civilians report they do not understand the challenges veterans face. Also, research shows that fewer Americans have personal ties to the military, and those who do not are less likely to offer support to families who do. These gaps in understanding can lead to military veterans feeling isolated from their civilian communities, which could interfere with their reintegration.
Other studies have found that an anticipated stigma is a significant concern of military veterans. The term "anticipated stigma" refers to the concerns of being mistreated by others, being devalued, and discriminated against for holding a stigmatized attribute. In this case, for being associated with the military or identifying as a military veteran. Research has shown that civilians vastly overestimate the percentage of veterans who are likely to experience PTSD, believing that over fifty percent suffer from it. Actual prevalence rates suggest it is closer to ten to twenty percent. This concerns the documented stigmas associated with PTSD, mainly that those with the disorder are violent or crazy.
A recent research study showed how civilians feel towards military members using a measurement of implicit bias. This term is referred to as negative bias without conscious awareness or knowledge affected by feelings, behaviors, and decision-making. It is precisely shaped over a lifetime through firsthand learned experiences and indirect messages from family, culture, and media exposure. This study recruited forty-eight undergraduate students to complete a measure of implicit bias against military veterans using the Implicit Association Task test. Examples can be seen at implicit.harvard.edu. Results indicated that the civilians showed a mild negative bias toward veterans, which were not affected by any other influence like biological sex, political affiliation, or by the family history of military service. It is essential to note this study was the first of its kind, and it used a tiny non-representative sample. However, it did provide evidence that stigmatization occurs implicitly.
Stigmas and the fear of stigma are widespread among Veterans with PTSD, and both have damaging effects on a Veterans' well-being and participation in their mental health treatments. The internalized stigma is harmful consequences of societal stigmas and has been associated with feelings of decreased hope, morale, self-esteem, personal motivation, and persistence in regards to illness management among individuals with a wide range of mental illnesses.
I encourage my fellow veterans, their friends, and family members to educate themselves about veteran mental health and how it affects both self and societal perceptions of veteran stigmas. Know that through persistence, resourcefulness, and self-discipline—the same qualities taught in the military—we can change our brains physiologically and psychologically with or without a diagnosis of TBI and PTSD. Labels should not place limits on our brain’s health, and they most certainly do not define our brain’s potential. Mental health conditions are not signs of weakness and do not last a lifetime; they are treatable and overcome with persistence and perseverance.
I am asking fellow veterans to commit to shattering the social stigmata associated with mental health conditions in veterans. I encourage all of you to gain a greater understanding of our greatest asset; the brain. This will allow us to help reduce the stigma of TBI, PTSD, and the old-fashioned notion that the brain can’t improve. We need to begin a new, more hopeful global conversation around veteran mental health, allowing us to honor our patriots today and in the future. We owe this to them and all they have done for our country!!
Image Provided by Kaplan, D. (2019). Reducing Military Mental Health Stigma to Improve Treatment Engagement: Guidance for Clinicians. Retrieved from https://www.pdhealth.mil/news/blog/reducing-military-mental-health-stigma-improve-treatment-engagement -guidance-clinicians