The false stigma of seeking mental health treatment

  • Published
  • By Col. Edward Farley
  • 375th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron commander
In 2010, 29 percent of troops in Iraq who had symptoms of mental problems said they feared that seeking help would hurt their careers, down from 34 percent the previous year, according to an Army survey of more than 3,000 people.

Nearly three-quarters of the 200 military men and women interviewed by the American Psychiatric Association said that it was very or somewhat easy for them to seek out mental health care, but 60 percent still feared that doing so could have negative consequences on their career. More than half reported they believe others would think less of them if they sought out counseling, and most surveyed said they have rarely or never spoken even to family and friends about mental health issues. These numbers show "there's still a long way to go toward reducing the stigma surrounding care," according to APA board member Dr. Mary Helen Davis.

Seeking help this way is perceived as weak--and worse, as harmful to our careers.
It's not a simple issue. The military culture requires men and women to act "tough." By this, I mean to keep fear at bay in life-threatening situations; to place country and honor first, beyond their safety and their desire to be home; to live in dangerous war zones for months at a time with the concrete possibility that they may lose their lives; to see death and cruelties on a daily basis.

We must do the job--no matter the cost--because our nation depends on us.
It's not surprising that with this amount of pressure, most people in this group may be reluctant to admit that they are struggling with an issue or that they need help. They simply choose to "suffer in silence," unaware of the damage and cumulative impact they've heaped onto their coping resources.

When we deal with trauma, post-traumatic stress disorder and the many anxiety-related disturbances that afflict those who served in the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, seeking mental help becomes fundamental, if not imperative, to continue functioning. Diminished coping resources can lead to errors, accidents or worse in a deployed environment. And, if left unaddressed, the long term consequences to self and family are unfortunate to say the least.

Something has to change, and changes come about slowly. Fortunately, society and our leaders realize the importance of this issue.

Former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced a policy that should encourage, or at least make it less difficult, for troops to seek mental health counseling.
The change specifically relates to Question 21, required by the Office of Personnel Management for security clearances. Previously, military men and women were asked if they sought mental health counseling in the last seven years, and if so, they are required to provide names, addresses and dates of service. The question is now amended in a way that will make it possible not to reveal all of the mental health counseling received.

This is one of the many initiatives aimed at encouraging service men and women to seek help.

Also within its report, the APA presented one of the first pictures of the effects of war on the mental health of military spouses. Predictably, about 70 percent of those surveyed said they worried that their loved ones would be harmed or killed in battle. But nearly two-thirds also reported that handling domestic issues alone or being a single parent was a major source of stress. About 12 percent said that they feared their spouse would resent them if they sought out mental health treatment. So reluctance to get help for PTSD affects more than the soldiers themselves, Davis said. "Whole communities will have to deal with the consequences," she said. "It will be a tremendous public health problem for all of society."

What is being done to help?

Plenty: Congress included $900 million in the DoD's supplemental budget for fiscal years 2007 and 2008 to fund more mental health services, as well as more research on the effects of traumatic brain injuries, or TBI, and treatments for TBI and post-traumatic stress disorder, PTSD.

The U.S. Senate recently passed Senate bill S. 2162, the Veterans Mental Health and Other Care Improvements Act of 2008, by unanimous consent. According to the Committee's Chairman, U.S. Senator Daniel K. Akaka (D-HI), the legislation would require the VA to improve treatment of veterans with multiple disorders, such as PTSD and substance use disorder. To ascertain if a VA's residential mental health facilities are appropriately staffed, this bill would mandate a review of such facilities. It would also create a vital research program on PTSD and substance use disorders, in cooperation with, and building on the work of, the National Center for PTSD.

There are a variety of things military members and spouses can do to understand the warning signs of and treatment options for mental health issues including:

· Talking with someone in their "network of care" (e.g., primary care physician, religious leader, or friends and family) about what they are going through.

· Using online resources to learn about common mental health issues associated with serving in a war zone and their symptoms.

· Accessing the Airman and Family Readiness Center. Each AFRC has a Military Family Life Consultant program which can provide limited counseling services.

· Discussing their concerns with a mental health care professional right here at Scott.

To learn more about mental health issues, including those most prevalent among military members, please contact the 375th Medical Group's Mental Health Clinic at 256-7386 or Military OneSource, a DoD initiative aimed at supporting families during deployment and assisting with their adjustment. In addition to providing information, referral support and 24/7 access to trained counselors via telephone at international toll-free, 800-3429-6477; or Internet www.militaryonesource.com, it also offers free face-to-face counseling in the family's community up to six sessions, paid for by DoD, focusing on stress management and relationship issues.

Military life, especially deployments and mobilizations, can present unique and difficult challenges to service members and their families. We can successfully deal with many of them on our own. But sometimes matters just get worse, and one problem can trigger other more serious concerns. At such times, it is time to put aside the false stigma of seeking mental health treatment and get the help you need. You don't have to suffer in silence.