Effects of Stigma on Veterans’ Mental Health

Stigma is a mark of disgrace (often unfairly given) on a person or group of people.1 Unfortunately, people with mental illness are often stigmatized and may feel unnecessary shame simply for being sick. Stigma is sadly common among military Veterans, and it may keep them from seeking out the help they need and deserve.2

Why Do Veterans Experience Stigma?

a servicemember considers the stigma of seeking treatment

During military service, certain stigmatizing beliefs around military culture and conduct may become ingrained and impact Veterans in their civilian lives.2 These may be rooted in:2

  • The importance of the group achieving a military goal above all else.
  • The need for service members to be able to rely on each other.
  • The value placed on self-sufficiency.
  • The value placed on normative masculinity.
  • The tendency to look down upon those who take sick leave/time off work.

Service members may fear opening up to others about needing help because of how it may impact their careers and the trust their fellow service members have in them.

In the military, “operational readiness” is extremely important, and while the military offers mental healthcare, service members may be hesitant to seek it out for fear of no longer meeting the operational readiness requirement and thus hurting their careers. This may lead to treatable issues worsening over time and persisting after military service ends.2

In one study, a Veteran was quoted as saying “It’s scary to go for mental healthcare because people automatically think that you are not stable enough to handle tasks in the military. And then if you say that you are seeking mental healthcare, they automatically write you off as not being capable.”3

Of course, it is not only military culture that contributes to stigma in Veterans, but also American culture at large. Mental health disorders and addiction continue to have stigmas attached to them, and Veterans who suffer from them may experience stigmas in their civilian lives. Unfortunately, they may also internalize that stigma.

What Is Internalized Stigma?

Internalized stigma, sometimes called “self-stigma,” is a phenomenon in which a person who has perceived or experienced stigma internalizes the negative beliefs and begins to feel inadequate or tainted as a result.4

Someone who has a mental health disorder may begin to endorse negative public perceptions and label themselves in harmful ways. For example, they may begin thinking they are dangerous or that they should be fearful of themselves.5

How Does Stigma Affect Veterans?

Veterans who are impacted by public stigma and/or self-stigma can suffer a range of negative emotions and may:1

  • Be more likely to behave secretively.
  • Isolate themselves.
  • Be called derogatory names.
  • Suffer discrimination.

Vets who have mental health disorders or who struggle with addiction may fear being seen as “weak.” One Veteran said of his experience in needing healthcare, “I would rather talk to a civilian than an actual military person, because I thought the military person in their head was thinking, ‘Suck it up, get back to what to you got to do.’”3

Veterans’ perceptions that people would see them as a failure for struggling with mental health issues have been shown to contribute to drug and alcohol abuse and a reluctance to seek treatment.3

Self-stigma can result in low self-esteem and a decreased confidence in one’s own abilities, both of which are linked to the avoidance of opportunities related to employment and living independently.

The tendency for someone with mental illness to believe negative stereotypes about themselves can, in fact, worsen the course of their mental illness because it may lead them to lose hope and undermine their own goals.5

Self-stigma is also associated with decreased intentions to seek out help.2  

Hope for Veterans: Getting Help Takes Courage

a veteran seeks help through treatment

Although Orange County substance abuse programs offer many options available to those who need mental health treatment, service members’ utilization of these options is low.

To help, the military is attempting to make a cultural shift in which they discuss treatment-seeking as a sign of strength and highlight resources like the Real Warriors campaign.6

As a Veteran of the U.S. military, you have sacrificed a lot to serve our country. When you are struggling, you do not deserve to be left without care. It’s normal to perceive that others may think less of you if you ask for help, but in reality, asking for treatment is a true sign of courage and resilience.

Your well-being matters. We are here to help. Our parent company, American Addiction Centers (AAC), is committed to the health of our country’s Veterans. Laguna Treatment Center, along with AAC’s 7 other facilities across the country, is an authorized community care providers for eligible Veterans.

At Laguna, we offer a specialized addiction treatment program for military Veterans from all branches of the U.S. Armed Forces, as well as current and retired first responders. The program provides a safe place for these individuals to begin a path to recovery among peers who understand the high-stress nature of their professions.

Call us at any time of day, any day of the week to learn more about how we can help you.

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