Friday, May 22, 2015

Combating Mental Health Stigma with Statistics

Written by Brianne Sampson

There are roughly 23.4 million veterans in the United States. In addition, there are an estimated 2.2 million service members actively serving and 3.1 immediate family members. Yet these numbers only represent about 1% of the general population (SAMHSA, 2014).

For those who have served, both on the frontline and back on the homefront, the demands and stresses of military life are unique and widely misunderstood throughout the general population. Consider this, nearly 18% of service members returning from Iraq or Afghanistan have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or depression (SAMHSA, 2014). So roughly, 2 out of every 20 service members returning from Iraq and Afghanistan are suffering from a mental health diagnosis. Yet only half of those who suffer will seek out professional treatment.

Alcohol use within the military culture is considered common and is often a part of military traditions. Once a service member or a veteran begins consuming alcohol at a rate higher than intended or begins experiencing complications from alcohol use within their lives, the substance use becomes a problem and is then considered to be a substance use disorder. It is estimated that nearly 30% of those veterans already suffering from a mental health disorder, such as PTSD or depression, are also suffering from a substance use disorder. When a service member suffers from a mental health disorder and also has a substance use disorder, studies show they are even more resistant to seeking professional treatment.

While stigma associated with mental health disorders are not isolated to the military population, the barriers to seeking treatment have different origins than the general population. Those service members still actively serving fear the loss of respect and trust within their units. Furthermore, seeking treatment is believed to be a sign of weakness (Hoge et al., 2004). Considering camaraderie is the backbone of military culture, this type of stigma can be crippling.

Treatment programs that address both mental health disorders and substance use disorders concurrently are becoming more commonplace and are now considered evidence-based treatments. Previously it was thought that a veteran had to address the substance use disorder before they could effectively participate in treatment that would address their mental health disorder. Treating only one disorder at a time could cause the veteran to bounce between problematic behaviors and various treatment approaches. For example, veterans may seek avoidance from depressive feelings or traumatic memories through substance use while attending treatment for their mental health disorder. It may appear they are making progress in treatment, when really they are avoiding the feelings through substance use. Likewise, a veteran may attend treatment to abstain from substance use, but not be able to properly address the issues that initially caused the veteran to turn to substance use, putting the veteran at an increased chance for relapse. Participating in treatment that addresses both issues simultaneously provides the veteran with the ability to develop coping skills to address the substance use and the mental health disorder and education about how the two are related. Treating PTSD, or other mental illnesses, at the same time as a substance use disorder is considered the most effective treatment method at the current time.

What does this all mean? While the statistics provided may be sobering, our veterans are not just numbers. The stigma of substance use disorders and mental health disorders exist and often prevent veterans from seeking treatment, leaving them at an increased risk for homelessness and suicide. These conditions are difficult to overcome, but there is hope! Removing the stigma associated with mental health disorders and substance use disorders can only happen if we agree to address the problem as a nation.

There are programs within the Department of Defense and the Veterans Health Administration that are addressing these issues. However, more support is needed within our local communities. These programs cannot be successful if veterans are not willing to access treatment. Reaching out to veterans in need should be a shared responsibility, and one that should not be taken lightly. Resources such as Coaching into Care, a confidential hotline, have also been created to help family members and friends talk to veterans about these difficult topics. We should all be willing to serve them, just as they have served our country.

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