June 21, 2016, by David McCauley – Veterans have problems just like everyone else. Sometimes they get stressed, depressed, or anxious. We don’t talk about it enough though, especially not in the service. Overcoming mental health stigmas and stereotypes is hard no matter what your background in life is. Opening dialogues about disorders and illnesses may be normal in the civilian world, but it’s still stigmatized in the military. The unspoken norm is simple: If you have problems, keep them to yourself.
Stereotypes of military members as broken heroes only reinforces those beliefs. Ultimately it serves only to isolate service members. It’s difficult for civilians to relate to military members without an accurate understanding of what they go through on a daily basis. PTSD is relegated to a plot device in Hollywood, and it skews public opinion of veterans. Even general mental illness is not accurately depicted or understood.
Admitting a problem and asking for help does not make you less of a soldier or a person. Veterans are people too, and they have all of the same problems as folks outside of the service. It take self-awareness to admit that you need help.The stigma surrounding counseling in the military must end if we truly want to end this dangerous trend.
Soldiers often feel lost and isolated after deployment. Deployed military personnel bear witness to a variety of serious incidents and stresses, and too many won’t seek counseling out of fear for the consequences. If military leadership wants to lower suicide rates among the ranks, open dialogues must be allowed. Preferably a dialogue that won’t reward honesty with an involuntary discharge “for the Convenience of the Government.”
Mental illnesses are often permanent disqualifiers for retention or entry into the service. At a time when the military is downsizing, medical waivers are few and far between. This remains the case even when depression is situational, ie, stemming from the death of a loved one. Exactly who among us has never felt low in their life? Service members who are facing these problems shouldn’t have to do it alone. Yet that is exactly what is asked of them. We don’t want to know – “keep it to yourself.”
This in turn creates and reinforces another problem. Enlistees are willing to lie to get into the service. Service predicated upon lies creates a situation where we don’t know the mental health histories of our service members. If the military created an environment where mental illness wasn’t a permanent disqualifier, perhaps more men and women would be willing to come forward and discuss their problems with honesty. Then medical professionals could make educated recommendations after reviewing all documentation and notes. Secrets and shame created and perpetuate this dangerous system. Brave men and women feel isolated and misunderstood – and they are.
The struggles that service members (and their families) face are serious. The key to solving this cultural conundrum is overcoming the stigma surrounding counseling and mental health. Women and men in the military are people, plain and simple. They have problems just like everyone else. They deserve to be treated with compassion and respect. Normalizing the treatment of current and former military members is an important part of mitigating a dangerous trend of emotional repression. Ignoring or bottling up these problems is not the answer.
About the Author: D.M. McCauley is a former U.S. Navy sailor who worked in Intel. After the service he has dedicated his time to writing and traveling with his significant other.