As someone who has known more than a few soldiers from the military in my life, I can say with confidence that soldiers with mental health conditions are overlooked, and often struggle to get the care that they need. On top of this, there is a huge stigma that surrounds mental health, especially for military soldiers. They frequently don’t get care because they believe that to do so would be a signal of their “weakness” – which is obviously not true.
Billy DeWalt, who lives in Raleigh, is an Army veteran who uses a service dog to cope with his Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and anxiety. Quinn, a four year-old boxer goes everywhere with him and helps him stay healthy and grounded. DeWalt, a survivor of two suicide attempts, says of his time in the military, “There was a lot of stigma around mental health in the military…Any chink in your armor disqualifies you [from Special Forces.] For that reason, I ignored a lot of things I should have paid attention to.”
Members of the military sometimes blame themselves for their internal struggles. This makes them much less likely to seek help when they feel that the problem is somehow their own fault. Even the strongest of leaders benefit from proper mental health care. It’s fairly well known that PTSD is incredibly common among soldiers, but what isn’t as well known is that it can often go untreated – which is incredibly dangerous.
There’s also a lot of harmful misinformation out there about common mental health issues for veterans, such as PTSD. After the recent tragic mass shooting in California by a former member of the military, President Trump exemplified this by making uninformed, harmful comments about veterans and PTSD. “Comments like this one from our Commander in Chief are extremely unhelpful,” Paul Rieckhoff, founder and chief executive of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said in a statement “They perpetuate a false and damaging narrative that veterans are broken and dangerous. Most people who suffer from PTSD, when able to access effective treatment, are able to live healthy, happy, meaningful lives.”
In fact, as Rieckhoff points out, in those instances where mental illness does lead a veteran to violence, they’re more likely to harm themselves than someone else, adding “We lose 20 veterans and service members to suicide every single day.” For this and many other reasons, the mental health of soldiers is just as important as their physical health. If a person’s mental health condition is left untreated, it is not only dangerous to themselves but to those around them. The rate of suicide is far too high among veterans – over 22% higher than for the civilian population. Clinics for discharged soldiers are often overbooked and understaffed, and the stigma mentioned before also has an effect on veterans getting proper treatment.
If you know someone who has been or is enlisted in the military currently, you should keep an eye on their mood and encourage them to seek help if they need it. It’s very possible that they need help or know someone who does. And encourage veterans and those in the military to see mental health treatment. While there is a fear amongst military personnel that seeking treatment could damage their career, in fact the opposite is true. The National Alliance on Mental Illness shared that, “according to a 2006 study in Military Medicine, 97% of personnel who sought mental health treatment did not experience any negative career impact. The same study showed that it’s risky to ignore a mental health condition. If it worsens, a commanding officer can require a mental health evaluation, which is much more damaging to your career. Among people who had command-directed evaluations, 39% had negative career impact.”
The only way to stop the negative stigma on mental health is to talk about it. Share statistics on social media, donate to local campaigns, whatever it takes. Remember to treat sufferers from these types of conditions the same way you would treat anyone, especially a soldier – with respect.