How Does Stigma Affect Veterans’ Mental Health?

The stigma associated with drug and alcohol addiction is one of the main barriers veterans face in seeking treatment. The fear of being judged or labeled makes veterans with addiction hesitant to seek help, which can lead to serious, potentially fatal outcomes.1

Veterans tend to suffer from substance abuse disorders more frequently than non-veterans, and stigma plays a more significant role in veterans’ reluctance to seek treatment. According to research, active-duty personnel who leave the military are more likely to use illicit drugs, with veterans reporting 3.5% of them frequently use marijuana, while another 1.7% abuse other illegal drugs every month.1

In order to help them overcome their addictions, veterans have access to comprehensive addiction treatment programs offered by government organizations and treatment networks. They also provide veterans with the support they need to overcome their addictions in addition to reintegrating them into society. In this article, we’ll explore what stigma is and how it can get in the way of treatment.1

What is Stigma?

Veterans may struggle with a range of mental health conditions, many of which may be exacerbated by the stigmas experienced in military and veteran communities. Military veterans face public stigma and self-stigma related to their service, which can lead to isolation, shame, and distress.2

To clarify this further, stigma can be classified into three types:3

  • Self-stigma: Self-stigma occurs when a person internalizes negative stereotypes or messages about their identity. Self-stigma can result in feelings of worthlessness, incompetence, and helplessness. 
  • Anticipated Stigma: This type of stigma involves expecting others to judge negatively because of one’s identity, beliefs, or behaviors. Anticipated stigma can lead to social withdrawal and avoidance.
  • Public Stigma: Public stigma refers to the negative attitudes, beliefs, and opinions held by the broader public towards specific individuals or groups of people. This type of stigma can lead to discrimination, prejudice, and stereotyping.

For veterans, in particular, some of the most common stigmas they face are those based on their age, gender, and sexual orientation. Feelings of distress, secrecy, and shame are all everyday experiences for veterans who experience stigma. Stigma can also harm mental health by leading to feelings of anger, depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation. Stigmatization can also lead to social rejection, difficulties in finding employment, and reduced access to mental health services.4

How Does Stigma Develop?

Stigma can form in different ways, depending on the source. In society, stigma can arise from entrenched beliefs, such as traditional gender roles or religious stereotypes. These beliefs are often held by a majority of the population and can be incredibly difficult to break down. Group stigma can form when members of any group begin to assign negative characteristics to another group, such as race, occupation, or ethnicity.2

Additionally, media plays a large role in forming stigmas, as it often focuses on controversial topics and creates a one-dimensional perception of certain people or activities. It has been shown that media representations are often skewed toward negative views, creating stereotypes and strengthening existing stigmas.2

Finally, stigma can also be created by individuals based on their own experiences and prejudices. This type of stigma is often seen in situations where a person has had a negative experience with someone of a certain group and assigns their own biases to the entire group.2 

No matter how they form, it’s important to recognize that stigmas are pervasive in our culture, and can be difficult to break away from. As such, it’s important to be aware of how and why stigmas are created and work towards dismantling them.2

What is the Impact of Stigma on Veterans?

Mental health stigmas can adversely affect veterans’ health, causing feelings of shame and guilt, potentially aggravating PTSD symptoms.In the absence of social support, veterans may be hindered in their healing process by stigmas or fear of labeling. It is also possible that stigma may negatively affect veterans’ sense of pride, which could lead to psychological issues like anxiety, depression, and substance abuse.5

A stigma-filled environment not only harms veterans’ mental health but can negatively affect their lives in other ways as well. The stigma surrounding veterans can make it difficult for them to get hired or find other employment opportunities following their service. The stigma associated with mental health issues may cause employers and colleagues to hesitate when hiring veterans, as well as adversely affect their interactions.6

How Does Mental Health Stigma Affect Veterans?

Veterans experience mental health issues due to a variety of factors, including combat-related trauma and the stress of transitioning back into civilian life. Additionally, Veterans often suffer from feelings of isolation or disconnectedness after exiting the military, which can cause the development or worsening of existing mental health conditions and stigma surrounding them. These factors combine to make veterans more susceptible to developing depression, PTSD, substance use disorder, anxiety, and other mental health conditions that require professional treatment.5

Some of the experiences and challenges Veterans face that may lead to mental health issues include:5

  • Lack of sleep.
  • Feeling helpless in life-threatening situations
  • Seeing fellow soldiers die or be injured.
  • Taking the life of another.
  • Deployment for years.
  • Various sudden combat experiences.

Additionally, Veterans face a number of issues once they return from deployment, which may include:6

  • Difficulties transitioning back to civilian life.
  • Relationship issues with family, friends, and partners.
  • Financial instability or job loss due to lack of transferable skills in the civilian workforce.
  • Feelings of shame due to mental health stigma, leading Veterans to avoid seeking help.

Apart from the increased risk of developing mental health issues, Veterans face mental illness stigma from both military peers and civilians. This stigma is often referred to as Sanism, which is defined as discrimination based on mental illness or perceived mental illness. Public mental health stigma can give the message that mental health conditions are a sign of personal weakness or incompetence. This stigma can lead to social exclusion and create an environment where veterans feel uncomfortable seeking help for their mental health issues due to fear of being judged or shamed by their peers.7

How Does the Stigma of Addiction Treatment Affect Veterans?

SAMHSA research reveals that mental health stigma detrimentally affects treatment choices in Veterans. Out of the estimated 3 million veterans with mental health problems, approximately 1.3 million have been reported to use substances. Sadly, 85.1% of veterans with substance use disorder were not treated at all.8

With quality care becoming more accessible to veterans, the impact of stigma has come into focus. Mental health stigma is an issue that has to be addressed, given how high the suicide rates among veterans are. Yet, in almost 27% of cases, veterans with mental disorders went untreated.9

Some of the most common reasons for not seeking treatment veterans cited included:10

  • They are ashamed to ask for help.
  • They feared superiors would treat them differently.
  • They feared the impact treatment would have on their employment.
  • They feared they would lose their peers’ trust.
  • They believed seeking treatment made them weak.

How Can Veterans Get Help Overcoming Stigma?

Overcoming stigma can be a challenging but necessary step in recovering from mental illness and improving the overall quality of life. Here are some ways that veterans can begin to address stigma:11

  • Ignoring Others’ Judgments and Perceptions: Veterans should try to ignore stigma-based judgments or perceptions that they may be exposed to. This can be difficult, but focusing on the facts and seeking out accurate information about mental health conditions is key.
  • Developing Supportive Relationships: It is important for veterans to connect with people who are supportive of their struggles with mental health stigma. This could include family members, friends, mental health professionals, and other veterans who have gone through a similar experience.
  • Seeking Out Mental Health Services: Veterans should take advantage of mental health services that are available to them. Professional help and support can be invaluable in overcoming the stigma associated with mental illness. 
  • Ignoring Misinformation: Veterans should be wary of inaccurate stigma-based information that may be disseminated in the media or on social media platforms. Ignoring misinformation and relying on accurate information is important in order to overcome stigma. 

You can learn more about stigmatization or discuss your own experiences by calling the Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-0825. The VA has a mental health chat option that is similar to their addiction hotline. If you are unsure about talking directly to someone, you can text 838255 for support.12

Where Can Veterans Find Addiction Treatment?

Providing high-quality treatment solutions for substance abuse and mental health issues for over ten years, American Addiction Centers (AAC) has worked with all major veteran insurance providers and healthcare providers such as Tricare. As part of the largest statewide network of rehab and detox facilities for addiction recovery, it offers a variety of treatment types for long-term recovery.

In order to meet the medical needs of veterans and first responders, AAC offers a special program for veterans called Salute to Recovery. Individuals struggling with alcoholism, opioid addiction, or illegal drugs like heroin can benefit from the following services:

You can find rehab centers near you using the online treatment center locator offered by SAMHSA, which lets you select the kind of facility you are looking for and the distance you are willing to travel. They also offer rehab facilities such as the Desert Hope Treatment Center or Recovery First Treatment Center that offer specialized inpatient programs for veterans suffering from depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder. They can easily check whether your insurance coverage will cover the costs of treatment through their admissions navigators.

Frequently Asked Questions