What Is Stigma? A Veterans Mental Health Guide

Veterans Mental Health Guide: Know more about stigma and its effects on veterans which can trigger depression, substance use, drug abuse & suicide.

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One of the main barriers for veterans seeking drug and alcohol addiction treatment is stigma. Too often, veterans suffering from addiction are reluctant to seek help because they fear being judged or labeled. This can lead to severely negative consequences, as addiction can be a deadly disease.1

The prevalence of substance abuse disorders among veterans is slightly higher than that among non-veterans, as is the impact of stigma among veterans. It has been reported that illicit drug use rates are higher among active-duty personnel who leave military service. According to an analysis of veterans’ reports, 3.5% use marijuana, and 1.7% use other illicit drugs every month.1

Fortunately, there are organizations and treatment networks that offer comprehensive addiction treatment programs. These programs help veterans overcome their addictions and provide them with the resources they need to reintegrate into society. This article aims to raise awareness about addiction and stigma and highlight the many programs available to veterans, hoping to inspire more veterans to seek help for their addiction and ultimately break the cycle of stigma and shame.1

What Is Stigma?

Stigma is a negative attitude or judgment about someone because of a particular trait, condition, or behavior. It can be expressed in many ways, including verbal abuse, ostracism, and discrimination. Stigma discourages people from seeking help as they fear being judged or labeled.2

When it comes to addiction and mental health stigma among veterans, its effects can be especially damaging. In many cases, veterans fear that seeking treatment would harm their chances of reintegrating into civilian life or jeopardize their military career. This is why it’s essential to raise awareness and encourage openness about addiction and mental health issues in the veteran community.2

Types of Stigma

There are three distinct types of stigma, namely:3

  • Self-stigma, also known as internalized stigma, which occurs when individuals accept the negative stereotypes associated with their condition and apply them to themselves.
  • Anticipated stigma is a type of stigma that happens when an individual anticipates how others will react to their condition. This can lead to thoughts of self-doubt, anxiety, fear of rejection, and avoidance of social situations. 
  • Public stigma is the general public’s perception of a person or group based on preconceived notions about a particular condition. It is often based on myths and misinformation and leads to prejudice, discrimination, and a lack of understanding. Public stigma can lead to rejection by peers or potential employers, as well as social isolation.

Stigma can be based on a variety of factors, including age, sex/gender, race, sexual orientation, and mental illness. For example, people may view older adults as being “wise” or “experienced” while viewing children as being “naive” or “innocent.” Likewise, people may view men as being strong and assertive while viewing women as being weak and passive. Additionally, people who are not heterosexual may face discrimination and violence due to their sexual orientation. Finally, people with mental illnesses or addictions often face discrimination and feel the impact of stigma from society at large.4

The Impact of Stigma on Mental Health and Addiction Patients

Stigma can be an incredibly distressing and damaging experience for those who have to face it. It is an invisible social phenomenon that can cause enormous hurt and humiliation, leading to feelings of secrecy, shame, and isolation.

When an individual is stigmatized, they may feel a sense of being “othered” or alienated from the rest of society. This can lead to feelings of despair, helplessness, and a lack of control. In some cases, stigma can even result in psychological distress, such as anxiety or depression.

Stigmatization is rarely discussed openly, leaving those affected feeling like they have no one to turn to for help and support. It is important to recognize that stigma is not only a personal problem but also a public health issue. It can have damaging effects on people’s physical and mental well-being, and hence it is critical to provide support to those affected by stigma.3 

One of the most common consequences of stigma is stereotyping. Stereotyping is when someone’s perceptions of a person or group are based on their own limited experiences rather than any real facts. This can lead to discrimination and prejudice against individuals and groups who are seen as “different” from the majority.2

Stigma can also lead to feelings of anger and frustration. People may feel powerless and frustrated when they are stigmatized or experience discrimination because of their identity, beliefs, or lifestyle choices. This sense of helplessness can lead to an increase in aggression, violence, and even self-harm.2

Where Does Stigma Come From?

Stigma has its roots in many aspects of society and human behavior. It can stem from prejudice, ignorance, fear, and discrimination. Stigma can form in different ways depending on the context of a particular situation or group..

In terms of social contexts, stigma can emerge from members within a group who hold certain negative beliefs or attitudes about a person or group of people. This could be based on race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, socioeconomic status, and other characteristics that are used to label individuals as “others”. The society also has a role in imposing stigmas by reinforcing certain negative stereotypes through media depictions and public opinion.2

Stigma can also form from medical or mental health diagnoses. People with certain conditions, such as addiction and mental health issues, may face stigma due to a lack of public understanding about the condition or treatment. Stigma can even be passed down from generation to generation, whether through family traditions or cultural beliefs.2

How Does Stigma Affect Veterans?

Stigma can have a serious and long-lasting effect on veterans’ mental health. It can lead to feelings of isolation, guilt, shame, and depression which can further worsen inner struggles with certain problems such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).5 

The lack of social support that some veterans receive due to stigmas or the fear of being labeled can impede their healing process. A veteran’s sense of pride may also be negatively affected by stigma, and this could lead to further issues with anxiety, depression, or even substance abuse.5

The impact of stigma is not only harmful to veterans when it comes to mental health but can also have an impact on other aspects of their lives. Stigma can often make it difficult for veterans to find employment and other opportunities once they return home from service. The myth that all veterans suffer from mental health issues can lead employers to be hesitant in hiring a veteran, as well as colleagues who may fear interacting with them due to the stigma attached.

Additionally, veterans face increased challenges when accessing healthcare or other services due to stigma. They may fear judgment from medical professionals or worry that their mental health issues will be seen as a sign of weakness.6

Mental Health Stigma & Veterans

Individuals who serve in the military face many dangers and potential triggers that can lead to mental health disorders years after initial exposure. Veterans are exposed to many psychological stressors in addition to physical exhaustion, which may make them more vulnerable to various mental health conditions even if their mental health has never been an issue. Common traumatic events and experiences Veterans often cite include:5

  • Sleep deprivation.
  • A sense of helplessness when faced with life-threatening situations
  • Witnessing the death or injury of fellow soldiers.
  • Taking care of injured soldiers.
  • Taking someone’s life in the line of duty.
  • Long-term deployment.
  • Sudden attacks and air raids.
  • Explosions along the roadside.

In spite of all of the hardships veterans endure, many have stated that the hardest part is coming home and having to re-adjust to their everyday lives once their adrenaline has subsided. Additionally, due to their experiences having devastating effects, many veterans are faced with mental illness stigma. When returning to civilian life, veterans cite the following situations as their biggest challenges:6

  • Renewing their relationships with friends and family. Children have grown and may seem unrecognizable or less dependent on close relationships because they are more independent. Additionally, their closest friends may have moved or changed, or they may not want to see them anymore because they have changed in some way.
  • Having trouble fitting in. Feeling alone or not being able to relate to people who don’t understand their experiences.
  • Finding structure and routine in their daily lives. Veterans may find that they have to engage in things they previously took for granted due to military life’s provisions (food, daily routine planning, etc).
  • Adjusting to a career outside of the military. Veterans who never worked before may have difficulty finding employment. In contrast, others may have difficulty holding on to jobs that are very different from their former occupations, like working in an office or with a computer.

All of these factors may lead to veterans developing different mental health issues, which further puts them at risk of mental illness stigma or sanism. Sanism refers to the stigmatization of people suffering from mental health conditions. The concept of sanism relates to the act of discriminating against people based on an incorrect assumption that people with mental illness are somehow inferior. In most cases, sanism originates from irrational prejudice, lack of understanding, or intentionally malicious behavior.7

How Does Mental Health Stigma Affect Treatment in Veterans?

SAMHSA research highlights veterans’ vulnerability to mental health stigma and how it negatively impacts treatment decisions. Among over 3 million Veterans suffering from mental health issues, an estimated 1.3 million indulged in substance abuse. Approximately 85.1% of SUD patients did not receive any treatment.8

Recently, as quality treatment has become more accessible to veterans, the devastating impact of stigma has been brought into the spotlight. Nearly 27% of war veterans who suffer from mental illness did not receive any treatment. The negative effects of addiction stigma on mental health issues must be addressed when dealing with suicides and suicidal thoughts in certain segments of society, such as the veteran community.9

Veterans’ responses to why they did not seek treatment when asked why they did not seek treatment reveal the real impact of mental health stigma:10

  • 36% were embarrassed to ask for help.
  • 25% believed the problem would be blamed on them.
  • 44% feared they would be treated differently by their superiors.
  • 33% feared career damage.
  • 41% feared they would lose the trust of their unit members.
  • 43% believe they will be perceived as weak.

How To Overcome Stigma?

Individuals will experience stigma differently depending on their psychological and personal circumstances. Overcoming mental health stigma takes time, and it’s impossible to predict its duration, as it depends on various factors such as geographic origin, sociopolitical and cultural factors, etc.11

A very important principle to keep in mind is that stigma is a social construct. You can always switch approaches if one does not seem to be working for you. These techniques may be useful when overcoming mental health stigma:11

  • Remember your strengths when working towards achieving a certain goal and focus on those things you are good at.
  • Remember that your illness does not define you when you are stigmatized or feeling down.
  • It is important to learn as much as you can about the treatment options available for your particular mental health condition.
  • People’s opinions are usually based on prejudice and don’t reflect your true situation. Don’t believe what people say.
  • Rather than basing your opinions on stigma, keep in touch with people who are supportive and willing to listen to your perspective.

Try raising awareness and supporting those in your environment who are stigmatized if you are not stigmatized yourself. Your small gesture can mean a lot to stigmatized individuals if you are open to learning new things and showing compassion to them. Talking openly about mental health stigma is important, but be aware of your language to avoid offending anyone, even if it is not your intention.12

Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-08255 can help you learn more about stigmatization or open up about your own experiences. As an alternative to their addiction hotline, you can visit the VA’s mental health chat. You can still receive support if you feel unsure about talking to someone directly by texting 838255.12

Veterans Specific Addiction Treatment at American Addiction Centers

With over ten years of experience treating substance abuse issues and mental health issues, American Addiction Centers (AAC) has partnered with all the major healthcare providers and insurance companies such as Tricare or Triwest to provide a high-quality treatment solution. It offers a variety of treatment types proven to result in long-term sobriety among the largest network of statewide rehab and detox facilities specializing in addiction recovery

Salute to Recovery is a special program offered by AAC for veterans and first responders that addresses the specific medical needs of military personnel. AAC offers detoxification, medication-assisted treatment, co-occurring disorder treatment, and outpatient, inpatient, and partial hospitalization programs tailored to meet the needs of individuals struggling with alcohol, opioids, or illegal drugs like heroin.

The SAMHSA online treatment center locator makes finding rehab centers in your area very easy, as it allows you to choose the type of facility you want and the distance you are prepared to travel. AAC also offers rehab facilities that provide tailored programs for veterans with conditions such as depression, anxiety, and PTSD. Their admissions navigators will be happy to provide you with any info and verify your insurance coverage.

AAC has 2 facilities that are members of the VA’s community care provider program:

  • Desert Hope Treatment Center. This treatment center is located in Las Vegas, Nevada. In addition to offering the best amenities, the facility ensures privacy and confidentiality. In order to make your treatment as pleasant as possible, their highly qualified medical professionals will monitor your progress 24/7.
  • Recovery First Treatment Center. The facility, near Hollywood, Florida, offers addiction treatment that combines a small group approach and a personalized touch. Their treatment plans are designed to help patients maintain their sobriety even after completing their treatment.

Frequently Asked Questions