By Anna Kim
Mental health plays a big part in the way a person acts and behaves. Having good mental health is important in maintaining social and psychological well-being. Therefore, the Pentagon is making efforts to eliminate military mental health stigma by getting rid of certain stigmatic language in Defense Department instructions, policies, and regulations.

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The Effects of Military Mental Health Stigma

Mental health stigma in the military continues to be a problem that prevents people from receiving the help and care they need. More specifically, the results of bad mental health in the military may be even more severe for service members who have witnessed or experienced traumatic events. As a result, they may experience stress, anxiety, or depression. It’s estimated that roughly 60%-70% of Veterans do not receive efficient treatment for their mental health. Since the military emphasizes toughness and independence, many military members anticipate that they will be looked down upon if they ask for help and think that their careers could be harmed. They may feel that others will see them as weak and be embarrassed if they look for guidance and support.

Mental Health and Suicide Prevention

Mental health is becoming an even bigger topic with the rise in suicide rates. In March 2022, an independent committee was created to review the military’s suicide prevention and mental health programs. Being in the military brings the possibility of constant exposure to trauma, so a committee of this kind was a great first step in addressing the issue. In 2021, commanders were given new guidelines on how to address and approach issues with mental health. Despite efforts to help troops, they still had trouble speaking up about their issues. The Department of Defense also edited its security clearance questionnaire a couple years back to make sure that people who need treatment for mental health issues do not need to report it.

The Pentagon’s Approach

Back in 2021, a review of policies discovered that roughly 67% of the language in the Department of Defense policies could be stigmatizing substance misuse and mental health. The Pentagon is striving to make positive changes to relieve the stigma of mental health problems in the military. Kathleen Hicks, Deputy Secretary of Defense, said, “I put out guidance… to remove language that stigmatizes… language that was very normal in those issuances maybe 20 years ago but are not reflective of where the behavioral health community is today.” Hicks ordered the Department of Defense leadership to look through all documents to make sure they do not contain material that talks about mental health in a negative way. She is determined to make sure no stigma is associated with mental health and the care and treatment relating to it. Certain language updates they want to change include the following:
  • “Substance abuse” to “substance misuse.”
  • “Psychiatric treatment facility” to “mental institution.”
  • “Irrational behavior” to “impulsive,” “unusual,” or “uncharacteristic behavior.”
Even though the review of language in the policies is not finished yet, 59% of the language has been changed to include neutral and updated language. Beyond the stigmatization of language, the military is adamant about fostering a healthy environment for those serving. They want to make sure there are resources and counseling available for health, stability, sexual assault and harassment, food security, and relationship management.

Mental Health and the Military

Military mental health stigma is real and greatly affects troops. Even though resources are available and encouraged, oftentimes, service members internalize feelings of shame and look down upon themselves for needing help. If you or anyone you know suffers from mental health issues after having served in the military, please encourage them to reach out for help. Services are available both online and in person.

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