Stigma Impacts Substance Abuse and Mental Health Care in Veterans

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Last Updated - 06/30/2024

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Updated 06/30/2024

Key Takeaways

  • Societal and self-stigma significantly impact veterans’ willingness to seek help for substance use disorders (SUDs).
  • Stigma operates at individual and structural levels, requiring multifaceted interventions for change.
  • Programs like Military Pathways and The Real Warriors Campaign aim to destigmatize mental health and substance use issues.
  • Many veterans with SUDs do not seek treatment, with stigma being a potential contributing factor.
  • Societal stigma and self-stigma deter veterans from accessing mental health care due to fear of judgment.
  • The Department of Veterans Affairs is working to eliminate disparities in veteran benefits and health care.
  • Stigma remains a barrier to mental health care, influenced by military values such as self-reliance.
  • Educational approaches and therapeutic strategies are being used to combat stigma among veterans.
  • Family and societal support are crucial in helping veterans overcome stigma and seek treatment.

Navigating Stigma: Substance Abuse Challenges in Veterans

The stigma surrounding substance misuse among veterans is a multifaceted issue that significantly influences their willingness to seek help. 

Societal Stigma and Substance Abuse in Veterans

Societal stigma profoundly impacts veterans struggling with substance misuse, often discouraging them from seeking the necessary help. Studies indicate that veterans facing combat-related PTSD are particularly hesitant to seek mental health services due to the stigma attached, which can result in severe consequences, including depression, substance misuse, and even suicide. Research shows societal perceptions and judgments can significantly deter veterans from accessing care.

Prevalence of Substance Use Disorders

Substance use disorders (SUDs) among veterans are not only prevalent but are also accompanied by a higher incidence of co-occurring mental health disorders such as PTSD, depression, and anxiety. Veterans with mental health diagnoses are more likely to be prescribed opioids, and those with PTSD often receive higher doses, increasing the risk of opioid use disorders and adverse outcomes like overdoses and violence-related injuries. Data suggests that societal stigma around these issues persists despite the equivalence of illicit drug use rates between veterans and civilians.

Efforts to Combat Stigma

Efforts to combat stigma include the integration of mental health and substance use treatment into military units, educational campaigns, and specialized treatment programs for veterans. Despite these initiatives, many veterans still do not seek treatment, with societal stigma being a significant barrier. The military is actively working to foster a supportive culture and reduce stigma by training leadership, providing health care services during non-duty hours, and developing veteran-specific programs aimed at decreasing stigma and engaging veterans in care. Further efforts are crucial to encourage veterans to seek help without fear of judgment or discrimination.

Self-Stigma Among Veterans with Substance Abuse Issues

Veterans often carry the weight of self-stigma regarding their substance use, which can significantly hinder their willingness to seek treatment. The internalization of negative beliefs about oneself due to substance use can lead to a reluctance to pursue help for fear of judgment or perceived weakness. Studies indicate that veterans with combat-related PTSD are particularly susceptible to self-stigma, which can worsen depression and substance misuse. It can even lead to suicide. The societal expectation of self-reliance and the military ethos of strength can further reinforce this self-stigma, making it challenging for veterans to acknowledge their struggles and reach out for support.

Underutilization of Mental Health Services

Research published in Psychiatry Online reveals that only a fraction of US veterans with probable mental or substance use disorders are engaged in mental health treatment. This underutilization of mental health care services is attributed to various factors, including self-stigma. Veterans may view their need for substance use treatment as a personal failure, which conflicts with their identity as resilient service members. This perception can create a significant barrier to accessing care despite the availability of effective treatment options.

Efforts to Combat Self-Stigma

Efforts to combat self-stigma among veterans include the integration of mental health and substance use treatment into routine care, as well as veteran-specific programs designed to reduce stigma and encourage care engagement. The Department of Veterans Affairs and other organizations have initiated campaigns and programs such as the Real Warriors Campaign and Military Pathways, which aim to normalize mental health struggles and emphasize that seeking help is a sign of strength, not weakness.

Importance of Addressing Self-Stigma

Addressing self-stigma is crucial for improving the mental health and quality of life of veterans. By fostering a culture that supports mental health care and challenges the misconceptions associated with substance use, we can empower veterans to seek the help they need without fear of stigma.

Stigma’s Influence on Veterans’ Mental Health Care Accessibility

Stigma remains a formidable barrier to mental health care for veterans, often influencing their willingness to seek necessary treatment. Societal perceptions and internalized self-stigma regarding mental health can deter veterans from accessing care due to fear of being labeled or receiving a psychiatric diagnosis. This is compounded by military values such as self-reliance and the prioritization of duty over personal needs, which may persist even after service.

Initiatives to Combat Stigma

The Department of Defense and other organizations have initiated programs to combat stigma, recognizing the importance of mental well-being as a continuum. For instance, the Army has implemented leadership training to foster a supportive culture and reduce stigma. Psychological health care services are now more accessible during non-duty hours, and Combat Operational Stress Control programs integrate mental health and substance use treatment into unit services. Moreover, initiatives like the Real Warriors Campaign and Military Pathways provide educational materials and self-directed online resources to encourage veterans to seek help.

Continued Challenges

Despite these efforts, a significant portion of veterans who could benefit from mental health care do not pursue it. This reluctance is often due to concerns about confidentiality, potential impacts on their career, and the fear of negative judgments. As a result, addressing stigma is crucial for improving access to and utilization of mental health care among veterans. It involves changing the culture within military and veteran communities, providing education about the normalcy of seeking help, and ensuring respectful and viable treatment options are available.

Support for Veterans Struggling with Addiction

For veterans struggling with addiction, The Recovery Village offers a compassionate approach to treatment, emphasizing the strength in seeking help and the availability of support without judgment. Veterans are not alone in their journey toward improved mental well-being and recovery.

Stigma’s Influence on Veterans’ Use of Mental Health Services

Stigma surrounding mental health is a significant barrier that impacts veterans’ utilization of mental health care services. Despite the prevalence of psychiatric and substance use disorders among US military veterans, a substantial number do not seek the treatment they need. One study revealed that only 27% of veterans with a probable mental or substance use disorder were engaged in mental health treatment. Factors contributing to this underuse include emotional and cognitive difficulties, PTSD symptom severity, chronic pain, and a lack of resilience or ‘grit’.

Efforts to Combat Stigma

Efforts to combat stigma and encourage treatment have been implemented across military and veteran communities. These include training for military leadership to foster a supportive culture, embedding mental health care services within units, and developing programs that offer self-help resources and education on mental health. For instance, the Real Warriors Campaign and Military Pathways provide materials that normalize mental health challenges and emphasize that seeking help is a strength.

Persistent Challenges

Nevertheless, stigma persists, often influenced by military values such as self-sufficiency and a tendency to prioritize other needs over personal well-being. Veterans may fear judgment or repercussions for seeking mental health care, which can lead to reluctance in accessing available services.

Addressing Stigma for Better Utilization

To improve utilization rates, it’s crucial to continue addressing stigma through education, policy changes, and supportive community initiatives that validate the importance of mental health care and dismantle misconceptions.

Overcoming Stigma in Veterans Seeking Mental Health Care

Veterans grappling with substance use and mental health issues often face significant stigma, which can be a barrier to seeking treatment. However, there are strategies to combat this stigma and encourage veterans to pursue the care they need. 

Educational Approaches to Combat Stigma Among Veterans

Addressing the stigma associated with substance use and mental health issues in veterans is crucial for their recovery and reintegration into society. Educational strategies play a pivotal role in combating this stigma.

Enhancing Mental Health Literacy

Effective approaches include creating programs that enhance mental health literacy, which can help veterans and the public understand the complexities of mental health conditions. Notable strategies involve the disclosure of personal struggles and successes by credible speakers who can resonate with veterans. These interventions have shown significant improvements in attitudes towards help-seeking and reduced desire for social distancing.

  • Local relevance: Tailoring educational content to veterans’ specific experiences and challenges ensures the material is relatable and impactful.
  • Face-to-face interaction: Direct contact with individuals who have overcome mental health challenges can foster empathy and understanding, breaking down negative stereotypes.
  • Highlighting successes: Sharing ‘on the way up’ stories that focus on veterans’ achievements in areas such as employment and relationships can inspire and reduce stigma.
  • Multi-faceted campaigns: Long-term, large-scale anti-stigma campaigns, like those implemented by the US Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs, have been beneficial in changing public perceptions and encouraging treatment-seeking behavior among veterans.
  • Focus on youth: Introducing anti-stigma initiatives early in schools and other youth settings can cultivate a future generation that is more understanding and supportive of veterans with mental health issues.

Balancing Awareness and Respect

It is also important to avoid ‘over-normalization’ that trivializes the experiences of those with mental health conditions. Educational efforts must balance raising awareness with maintaining respect for the seriousness of these conditions. By employing these strategies, stigma can be reduced, leading to improved access to care and better outcomes for veterans.

Therapeutic Approaches to Reducing Stigma in Veteran Mental Health

Stigma surrounding mental health issues in veterans can create significant barriers to seeking and receiving care. To combat this, several therapeutic strategies have been developed and implemented with promising results.

Art Therapy

One effective strategy is art therapy, which offers a non-verbal form of expression and can be particularly helpful for those who struggle to articulate their experiences and emotions. Art therapy facilitates a creative outlet for healing and can reduce the stigma associated with traditional talk therapies.

Interdisciplinary, Evidence-Based Treatments

Interdisciplinary, evidence-based treatments, as noted by Dorothy A. Kaplan, Ph.D., can help address the complex needs of veterans with traumatic brain injuries and psychological health conditions. Such treatments often involve a combination of medication, counseling, and social support tailored to the individual’s experiences and symptoms.

Department of Veterans Affairs Initiatives

The Department of Veterans Affairs has also initiated programs like the Readjustment Counseling Service/Vet Center and Veteran Cultural Competence Training, aiming to decrease mental health stigma and encourage engagement with mental health services. These programs focus on providing accessible, veteran-centered care that acknowledges and respects veterans’ unique challenges.

Emphasis on Personalized Care

Overall, these therapeutic strategies emphasize personalized care, innovative treatments, and a supportive environment to help veterans overcome stigma and engage in mental health services.

The Role of Family and Society in Overcoming Stigma for Veterans

Family and societal support play a pivotal role in helping veterans combat the stigma associated with substance use and mental health issues. Stigma often leads to feelings of shame and isolation, which can deter veterans from seeking the care they need. By creating a supportive environment, families and communities can encourage veterans to pursue treatment and recovery without fear of judgment.

Educating Family Members

Efforts to combat stigma include educating family members about the realities of mental health and substance use disorders. This education helps to dispel myths and promotes empathy, creating a more understanding atmosphere for veterans. Research has shown that when veterans feel supported by their families, they are more likely to seek and engage in treatment.

The Role of Society

Society also plays a critical role in shaping perceptions of veterans. Community-based programs and campaigns, like the Real Warriors Campaign, aim to normalize the conversation around mental health and substance use, highlighting that seeking help is a sign of strength. These initiatives can reduce societal stigma and create a culture where veterans feel accepted and valued, regardless of their struggles.

Military Organizational Support

Moreover, military organizations are taking steps to foster a culture of support within their ranks. Programs such as Military Pathways and Combat Operational Stress Control integrate mental health care into the military structure, promoting positive attitudes towards treatment among service members and veterans alike.

Combined Efforts for Better Care

Ultimately, the combined efforts of families, communities, and military programs are essential in ensuring that veterans receive the mental health and substance use care they deserve, free from the barriers of stigma.

Expert Addiction Care at The Recovery Village Palmer Lake

There are quite a few different options for people who are seeking treatment for drug & alcohol addiction. Your individualized treatment plan at The Recovery Village Palmer Lake may include:

  • Medical detox: Patients detox from substances in a clinical environment where doctors monitor health and provide medications to ease withdrawal symptoms.
  • Inpatient treatment: Patients in inpatient treatment live at our facility and attend a full schedule of individual and group therapy, counseling and peer support sessions.
  • Partial hospitalization program (PHP): PHPs provide patients with additional flexibility and independence than inpatient programs.
  • Intensive outpatient program (IOP): IOPs help patients transition to life outside of rehab, with fewer hours of care and more time building skills and habits for recovery.
  • Outpatient treatment: Outpatient care provides ongoing treatment after an inpatient stay and supports patients as they transition back into their daily lives.
  • Aftercare: Aftercare programs help support long-term recovery through clinical and medical recommendations for follow-up care, relapse prevention plans and more.

Professional Help is Available 

If you or someone you love is struggling with drug or alcohol addiction, help is available. The Recovery Village Palmer Lake is here to support you throughout the entire recovery process. It’s time to get your life back. Call our Recovery Advocates today.


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