Many of the wounds suffered by our nation’s service members are invisible to the naked eye. They’re internal. They’re less obvious and easily missed. The wounds are inside, unknown—innocently—to the people around them, and in many cases, to the wounded themselves.
These interior wounds are the traumatic memories and scarring experiences that afflict the daily mental health of our nation’s soldiers.
In some ways, mental health wounds can be more life-threatening to a veteran than the more apparent physical injuries. This article looks at why this is the case, but also how veterans and non-veterans can help lift the crushing stigma around military personnel seeking mental health support—an urgent call to action.
Consider this staggering statistic from the Department of Defense Suicide Event Report (DoDSER):
For every soldier lost in combat, 25-30 take their own lives.
The report goes on to say that in 2011, the most common age range of veteran suicides occured between 25-29, mostly among lower ranking soldiers with a GED as the highest level of education. DoDSER also showed that veterans who were divorced commited suicide more than married and never-married veterans.
While the government has a solution — the Department of Veteran Affairs, which offers mental health services free of charge — it doesn’t mean veterans will voluntarily come in for therapy and treatment on their own.
“The VA will lose six vets a day to suicide from all generations, who are connected to care,” said Dustin Shryock, Director of Operations at Headstrong, a NYC-based nonprofit, founded by combat decorated former Marine Corps officer Zach Iscol. Headstrong is dedicated to providing free, world-class mental health care for veterans.
In other words, there’s a bigger problem behind the problem of access to care. And it’s much more complex than simply getting people through the door.
“At Headstrong, our greatest battle is not finding clients, it’s battling the stigma,” said Shryock. “And the stigma is compounded in military.”
The stigma around mental health is the perception that receiving support is shameful and an admission of weakness. It can be humiliating to admit you need help. And weakness isn’t a popular excuse, especially in the military.
This stigma is something Miguel Ocegueda, Director of Clinical Partnerships at Headstrong, has observed across the country, hearing stories from veterans who have gone through the VA. He noticed a recurring pattern of thought, time and time again, that blocks veterans from getting the help they need. The result is that thousands of men and women are suffering in silence and isolation, believing the lie that they’re alone in their fight against their thoughts.
Where the Stigma Comes From
“I met a previous active duty soldier who had everything going for him,” said Ocegueda. “He joined the national guard, was going to school, and had a bright future ahead of him. But he felt super disconnected. He didn’t feel loved, not even by his family. He didn’t understand what was wrong. He didn’t have any physical wounds. But it drove him to violence and suicidal thoughts, even plans to kill himself. When he was invited to the VA to receive treatment, the young man said, ‘There are more deserving people who need this help more.’”
This “warrior identity” is ingrained into military service members, said Ocegueda. They’re trained for years to be independent and self-forgetful, carrying a get-the-job-done-at-all-costs attitude all the time.
As admirable as it is, this “me-last” mentality is the most acknowledged but least understood reason why veterans avoid seeking mental health support, he said.
“When someone goes through the VA, they often don’t get the treatment they need because they’re confronted in the hallway with the image of a Vietnam veteran in a wheelchair or missing limbs,” Ocegueda said. “They think, ‘I don’t look like them, so I don’t deserve access. I’m intact. These guys have nothing. Why am I here?’”
This is a severe barrier that the Headstrong team encounters persistently. Both Ocegueda and Shryock shared how they seek to help veterans overcome it.
How Headstrong Helps Veterans Overcome Mental Health Stigma
Above all, one of the most important keys to helping veterans take their mental health seriously and seek treatment is a fundamental reframing of their perception of mental health. It requires considering the problem in proper context, coupled with an empathetic explanation.
“They need perspective,” said Ocegueda. “If someone is suffering from a heart attack, why wouldn’t they see a cardiologist? It’s the same with mental health.”
Shryock uses a similar analogy: “If you have a bullet hole in your arm, you get that addressed immediately. Take the brain seriously. The brain drives the body, why wouldn’t you take care of it? If you experience a traumatic event, you should treat it. Like a broken arm, you get a cast. The cast, in this case, is therapy. In the same way a cast is not forever, therapy is not forever. People can get better. And people are getting better.”
Since its founding in 2012, Headstrong has treated over 640 veterans, none of whom have committed suicide. Shryock reports that everyone who comes through the organization’s doors leaves better.
“The best way to overcome the stigma is not to defeat it, but to listen to what the veteran is saying,” advises Ocegueda. “Help him or her identify where the beliefs are coming from, why they’re negative, and help identify the false beliefs.”
One of the first steps in beginning the healing journey, said Ocegueda, is when veterans can identify that “this is a part of who I am, not all of who I am.”
Zach Iscol, founder of Headstrong, said, “The biggest need is education about trauma. Everyday Americans can help reduce the stigma around PTSD by learning more about it. PTSD is a survival mechanism that kicks in to keep us safe in the face of danger. It is a completely natural response to trauma. It is also treatable.”
Veterans can take hope in Iscol’s words. The story of the young suicidal veteran mentioned earlier ends with a breakthrough. “Your sacrifice warranted help.” Those words reached the man and he received treatment for a month. The self-afflicting false beliefs were identified and through peer group therapy and peer supervision, the man broke down the walls.
Do You Need to be a Veteran to Help a Veteran?
Ocegueda said there’s a common debate that you have to be a veteran to talk to a veteran, but he finds that it only further divides military and civilian personnel.
“I was giving a talk at a high school when a student stood up and asked ‘Have you ever had the feeling of falling and not being able to stop falling in a dream?’ I said I know exactly what that’s like.” In other words, by using empathy to build a bridge between common ground, a high school student was able to relate to what a veteran might go through. It doesn’t take combat to relate to a veteran. We can all resonate; we just need to communicate effectively.
The top reason why veterans don’t seek health support is a stigma that it’s a sign of weakness. If you take one thing away from this article, it’s this: Seeking mental health support is not a sign of weakness. It can be fatal to try to “tough it out.” Seeking mental health support is honorable, healthy, and warranted. We all can learn from Headstrong’s insights and shift the negative perception of mental health, and replace it with empathy.