Late Breaking News
Stigma Still a Barrier for Veterans, Servicemembers Seeking Mental Healthcare
- Categorized in: Department of Defense (DoD), Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), News, Policy, September 2010
WASHINGTON, DC—While both DoD and VA have made strides in combating the rising numbers of veterans and active-duty servicemembers committing suicide, the number of suicides in both cohorts remains high. Agency leaders and veterans’ advocates agreed that stigma surrounding mental healthcare and mental illness is the largest barrier in getting those numbers down, when they met to discuss the issue at a House VA Committee hearing last month.
“The best suicide prevention strategy is recognizing and treating those underlying conditions such as depression, alcohol and substance abuse, post-traumatic stress, and traumatic brain injury,” testified Tom Berger, PhD, executive director of the Vietnam Veterans of America’s Veterans House Council. “Many veterans, and active military, resist seeking help, because of the stigma associated with mental illness, or they’re unaware of the symptoms and warning signs.”
Timothy Embree, legislative associate for the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America added, “VA and DoD must declare war on this problem. They must create a nationwide campaign to combat stigma.”
DoD and VA officials noted that such a campaign has been underway for years and that both agencies have been making a concerted effort to change the mindset of servicemembers and veterans toward mental healthcare. DoD launched the Real Warrior Campaign in 2009 to promote the idea that true warriors are not afraid to seek help, even for non-physical injuries. VA has also been advertising its National Suicide Hotline in a variety of media markets.
VA officials pointed at the increased use of the hotline as proof that more veterans are feeling less hesitant about seeking help. The hotline has received nearly 300,000 calls since it opened in 2007 and facilitated more than 10,000 rescues and 35,000 referrals to suicide prevention coordinators. Since the addition of an online chat service to the hotline, VA has been receiving more than 20 online contacts from veterans a day.
For DoD, the challenge is not just decreasing stigma among its servicemembers, but training its officers to recognize symptoms and to treat mental illness among their men as seriously as they would physical injuries. “The largest barrier we face as a military and a society is preventing suicide and the stigma associated with it. Stigma prevents [people] from reaching out at the most troubling of times,” explained Col Robert Saum, director of the Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury.
“This training is ongoing, and [the Army] has introduced a program called Comprehensive Soldier Fitness. It addresses not just physical fitness, but mental health fitness to the NCOs and the officer corps. The buddy-buddy system of taking care of each other is one of the primary things that the program addresses,” Saum said.
Asked if there has been an increase in suicides among active duty servicemembers, Saum said he did not know. “There are data points that have been collected, but I’ve been sitting in this chair 14 days, and I have not been exposed to it.”