Although serving in the military can be a rewarding experience, it comes with health risks that are often invisible to the rest of the world. Active-duty military members and military veterans are at a much higher risk for developing certain mental health challenges, but they face an intense stigma around seeking treatment that may keep them from getting the help they so desperately need. That’s why it’s so vital to break down the barriers our military community is battling so that they can start living richer, more fulfilling lives.
The Effects of Deployment & Combat
There’s a misconception that active-duty military members and military veterans only develop posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and that this only occurs if they’ve experienced combat. But serving in the military exposes individuals to so many more traumatic events and stressors than just combat situations.
Some of the many traumatic events and stressors that the military community faces regularly include:
- Combat and warfare
- Sexual harassment or sexual assault
- Separation from loved ones
- Reintegration with loved ones
- Feelings of isolation upon return home
A well-known source of trauma and stress for members of the military community is combat situations, which are indescribably challenging — physically, mentally, and emotionally. When a member of the military experiences combat, they are exposed to varying degrees of trauma, including witnessing and engaging in violence and killing, potentially witnessing sexual violence, and witnessing and engaging in the destruction of cities and villages.
But a lesser-known — or perhaps lesser-discussed — source of trauma in the military is the high rate of sexual harassment and sexual assault. Many members of the military have experienced sexual harassment or sexual assault at the hands of superior officers or members of their units. It is not uncommon for individuals to experience sexual assault multiple times throughout their military careers, and younger, lower-ranking women are at the highest risk.
Even if a member of the military doesn’t experience combat, deployment can cause a variety of stressors in their life. Many members of the military are separated from their loved ones for months or years at a time. When they return home, they must try to reintegrate into their families after living completely different lives for a long time, an experience that can be isolating and lonely.
All these experiences can have a serious effect on a person’s mental health, leading members of the military community to develop a variety of mental health concerns and substance use disorders, including:
- Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Major depressive disorder
- Generalized anxiety disorder
- Panic disorder
- Suicidal ideation
- Alcohol use disorder
- Opioid use disorder
- Cannabis use disorder
And without specialized treatment, these mental health challenges and substance use disorders will worsen over time.
Breaking the Mental Health Stigma in the Military
A powerful mental health stigma in the military keeps so many individuals from reaching out for help when they are suffering from symptoms of a mental health disorder or addiction. Some of the most common reasons there’s still a stigma around mental health in the military community include:
- Fear of losing security clearance
- Fear of losing military career
- Feelings of shame and guilt
- Belief that mental illness is a sign of weakness
- Belief in ability to manage symptoms alone
A culture of fear continues to fuel the mental health stigma in the military. Many individuals in the military community are afraid that if anyone finds out they are struggling with mental health or substance use concerns, they’ll lose their security clearance, or it will result in separation from service. The fear of losing their military careers is so powerful that many continue to suffer in silence.
And for military veterans, there is a culture of strength and stoicism that keeps many people from seeking the help they need. Many veterans believe that because they made it through basic training and survived the stressors and traumas of military experience, they should be able to manage the symptoms of the mental health challenge or substance use disorder they are struggling with on their own.
Both active-duty military members and military veterans face a terrible stigma that convinces them that getting help for a mental health concern or substance use disorder is a sign of weakness. Many believe that it is better to face these challenges independently because that’s what they were trained to do.
But no one should face addiction or a mental health disorder alone. Seeking professional medical care for a mental health concern or substance use disorder is like seeking care for any other health condition, such as diabetes or a broken bone.
Mental health and substance use treatment is healthcare, and when an active-duty military member or military veteran finds the program that’s right for them, it can give them healthy ways to recover from the health condition that is disrupting their life.
The Need for Treatment in the Military Community
Individuals who are a part of the military community should not have to suffer in silence. An untreated mental health challenge and substance use disorder can cause severe damage to a person’s life in so many different ways, so it is crucial for members of the military community to get the care they need as soon as possible.
Because active-duty military members and military veterans have such unique experiences that inform the trauma and stressors in their lives, they need mental health treatment that is designed specifically for their needs. The Forgiving Losses and Gaining Strength (FLAGS) residential treatment program at Longleaf Hospital in Alexandria, Louisiana, helps active-duty, active reserve, veteran military personnel, and their dependents heal from the trauma and stressors associated with military experience.
If you or someone you love is suffering from a mental health challenge or substance use disorder, help is available. The FLAGS program at Longleaf can help you or your loved one take the first steps toward living a richer and healthier life.