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  • Writer's pictureAbi Sims

The Silent Battle: Exploring Mental Health Challenges in the U.S. Military

A quiet struggle persists within the U.S. military and has for decades: the battle against mental health challenges. With an increase in suicide rates for both active duty members and veterans, the military has attempted to implement change within their system to advocate for those struggling with mental health, but due to military culture's emphasis on mental resiliency, toughness, and neglect of encouraging emotional awareness, the advocacy has a long way to go.

We're going to delve into the often overlooked aspects of mental well-being among service members to shed light on the unique issues they face.

1. The Stigma About Mental Health & The Role of Military Culture

Within the military, there's a belief that acknowledging mental health issues is a sign of weakness. Because military culture is one that values resilience, toughness, and strength, people may fear that admitting to mental health struggles could be viewed as a personal failure by others. Having a stoic and resilient mindset is a part of the culture, and this can discourage individuals from being vulnerable and honest about their feelings, causing a suppression of emotions and reluctance to seek help for mental health. The fear of being judged by peers, superiors, or subordinates can be a challenging barrier to overcome when it comes to seeking mental health assistance. The military environment may foster a sense of scrutiny, which can make people hesitant to share their hardships and vulnerabilities.

It's likely there's a lack of understanding about mental health issues and their prevalence in the military. Stigmas are reinforced and conversations are hindered due to the misconceptions and stereotypes about mental health challenges. When stigmatizing language or derogatory terms related to mental health are used, it perpetuates stereotypes and creates a space where people are less likely to discuss their mental health openly.

2. Career Risks

The intersection of career risks and mental health in the military is a challenging and complex aspect that impacts many service members. The majority of service members are required to obtain security clearances for their roles. Mental health concerns, especially if perceived as significant, could lead to a reassessment of the security clearance, potentially affecting the ability for career advancement, potential reassignment, or medical discharge. In fact, having any current or former mental health conditions, or a history of a serious mental disorder, automatically prohibits military service. This means that if a person was ever clinically diagnosed with anxiety and it's on their record, they are unable to serve. This includes if the service member seeks mental health assistance for symptoms of anxiety, depression, or PTSD while serving and obtains a clinical diagnosis. They will lose their career. Of course we want all people, including service members, to be in a healthy mental space, but logically, disqualifying someone for service based off of a mental health condition only perpetuates the stigma that service members should hide their emotions and push through, because if they don't, they could risk losing their job, which causes them to not seek the help they actually need to be safe to themselves and those around them. No wonder service member and veteran suicide rates are so high; the military has created a system that encourages service members to not seek mental health assistance when they need it. The trade-off between addressing mental health concerns and potential career risks can lead to delayed or avoided help-seeking behavior.

3. Deployment Stressors & PTSD

PTSD and deployment stressors are significant mental health challenges faced by military members during and after deployment. The intensity and unpredictability of combat contribute to heightened levels of stress, which can cause PTSD to develop. Witnessing injuries and casualties can lead to having emotional distress, intrusive memories, and nightmares, which can cause survivor's guilt (feeling a sense of responsibility for the fate of others). Living under uncertainty and constant threat perception in a deployed setting causes a lack of predictability and the need to be constantly vigilant, which can result in hyper vigilance and heightened anxiety. Service members who go on multiple deployments face increased stress due to prolonged exposure to combative environments. The cumulative impact of multiple deployments can elevate the risk of developing PTSD.

During deployments, service members are typically separated from their families for extended periods of time. The emotional strain of being away from home, coupled with the uncertainty of the situation, contributes to the overall stress experienced by service members. When returning from deployment, or even after getting out of the military, reintegration into civilian life poses its own set of stressors. The transition is challenging, and service members may struggle adjusting to differences in people, routine, cultural expectations, language, behaviors, and events.

In order to address deployment stressors and prevent or manage PTSD, it requires a comprehensive approach that includes mental health education, accessible support services, and efforts to reduce stigma. By providing timely and effective mental health care after deployment or service, we can support the well-being by those affected by the challenges associated with deployment and service.

4. Access Barriers to Mental Health Care

There are long wait times for mental health care appointments in the military, which can discourage service members from pursuing mental health care in a timely manner. The availability of mental health professionals within the military does not meet the demand. Not to mention, the process of obtaining a referral to see a mental health professional can be complex and bureaucratic, causing challenges when navigating the referral system, leading to delays in accessing care.

Military bases and installations are located in diverse areas, and some service members are stationed in isolated or remote locations. Having limited access to mental health services in these areas can create geographical barriers to care.

Not all military personnel receive comprehensive training in mental health support and awareness. Skills necessary to identify and address mental health concerns could be lacking, caused in part by limited education and awareness about mental health issues. Greater mental health education could help reduce stigma and encourage people to get help when they need it.

Addressing these access barriers requires cultural changes, increased awareness, improved training, and enhanced mental health resources to ensure service members have they support they need to work through their mental health concerns without facing unnecessary obstacles.

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