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Veterans, Mental Health, and Combating the Stigma

Veterans, Mental Health, and Combating the Stigma

After fulfilling their duty to protect our American way of life, many veterans find themselves in an ongoing battle.  But, this is a battle that can’t be won with weapons.  It’s an invisible enemy that can strike when least expected, disrupting their entire life.  Family members also suffer negative effects from their loved one’s struggles.

The enemy that follows our veterans home is known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  It is a mental health issue that often goes untreated, leaving these individuals to struggle daily.  Their failure to seek treatment is due in part to the stigma surrounding military veterans and PTSD

Our veterans have earned the right to enjoy the post-military life they deserve.  So, we must find ways to combat the stigma that stands in their way.  We can start by putting away any preconceived beliefs we have about mental disorders.  Then, replace them with the facts below.

Ignore the Stigma and Learn the Facts 

The first step in helping veterans get help for PTSD is to ignore the stigma.  The next step is to learn the facts about veterans and mental health issues. 

Did you know less than one-half of veterans get the help they need?  This happens for many reasons.  But, stigma is often the primary barrier that keeps them from admitting that they’ve experienced symptoms of a mental disorder.  They keep quiet about it because they fear being labeled as “weak”, losing their job, or being rejected by society.  

The prevalence of PTSD among military veterans is higher than we realize.  For example, the Veterans Administration reports the following numbers of veterans who have experienced PTSD:

  • 20% of Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom veterans
  • 12% of Gulf War veterans 
  • 30% of Vietnam War veterans
  • 71% of female military personnel.  (About 17% of combat troops are women.)

Additional data about veterans and mental health disorders shows that 20 veterans commit suicide each day in the US.  

What Are the Effects of PTSD on Military Veterans?

PTSD is a psychobiological mental disorder.  It can affect combat survivors or people who experience terrorist attacks, deadly accidents, violent crime, natural disasters, or emotional loss.   These experiences are associated with changes in brain structure and functioning.  With some people, the symptoms are immediate, while with others the symptoms don’t emerge until months or years after the experience.

Each person reacts differently to stress and trauma.  But, the following effects are commonly experienced by military veterans who have PTSD:

  • Nightmares
  • Frightening thoughts
  • Flashbacks, panic disorders
  • Easily startled
  • A sense of being on-edge
  • Angry outbursts
  • Relationship problems
  • Trouble sleeping, fatigue
  • Memory issues, trouble concentrating
  • Feelings of guilt or blame, depression
  • Negativity about oneself or the world
  • Self-destructive behaviors
  • Suicidal ideations

It’s normal to experience some of the above immediately after a traumatic event.  However, if the effects persist beyond a month or two, professional help is the best option.  The affected person needs to learn skills for managing their symptoms.

Coping Methods Veterans Use to Avoid the Effects of PTSD

The symptoms and effects of PTSD are hard to manage at times.  Also, the way a person reacts to the symptoms can make them worse.  Before long, the person’s entire life has been disrupted.  

Some of the coping mechanisms used for avoiding symptoms of PTSD may include isolating from other people.  Avoiding places or things that prompt memories of the traumatic event leads to further isolation.  Many people become obsessed with work, exercise, or sex as a means of escape.  

The most common method for dealing with PTSD symptoms is to self-medicate with illicit drugs or alcohol.  In fact, more than 20% of veterans with PTSD struggle with substance use disorders.  Sadly, the substances amplify the negative feelings they are trying so hard to avoid.  

Furthermore, veterans are often prescribed addictive medications such as antidepressants to help alleviate their symptoms.  Many veterans are also prescribed addictive painkillers, sedatives, or stimulants.  Over time, their tolerance to the drugs increases and becomes an addiction.  

When someone has PTSD and a substance use disorder, they need treatment that will address both problems.  This is known as dual-diagnosis or co-occurring disorder treatment.  

Treatment for Veterans with Co-Occurring Disorders

The best treatment for co-occurring or dual-diagnosis disorders includes a combination of therapies that teach skills for managing symptoms and triggers.  Encouraging a person to talk about their fears, bad memories, and feelings of guilt or shame helps them look at their problems in a more realistic way.  Learning to use anger management skills, relaxation techniques, and communication skills are also valuable tools for controlling PTSD symptoms.

At Cycles of Change Recovery, we understand the complexities of both PTSD and substance use disorders.  Also, we know how the stigma surrounding veterans and mental health can lead a person to use addictive substances.  For those reasons, we offer a comprehensive program that includes various treatment options to address both disorders.  

Because each person responds to treatment in their own way, our program can be adapted to suit their unique needs and preferences.  With this approach, our clients get the highest level of care possible.  

Are you or a loved one struggling with PTSD and addiction?  If so, contact us today.  We’ll be happy to answer your questions about our program and recommend a treatment plan that is right for you.   

Resources

  • nimh.nih.gov/ – Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
  • onceasoldier.org/ – U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Report: Veteran Suicide Rates by State
  • ptsd.va.gov/ – PTSD:  National Center for PTSD:  How Common is PTSD in Veterans?