By Debbie Gregory.
The Pentagon and VA are becoming more proactive in promoting mental health treatment to troops and veterans, but many still refuse to get care, concerned about stigma, their jobs and psychiatric medications
Negative perceptions of mental health conditions and treatment continue to keep troops and veterans from seeking care, but the issue is larger than just the stigma of a diagnosis; it is complicated by concerns over keeping their careers and not wanting to be medicated, panelists said.
Various mental health groups are diligently working to destigmatize mental health issues. Among the groups that Military Connection works with are the Campaign to Change Direction, Give an Hour, and the Soldiers Project, just to name a few.
While stigma regarding mental health conditions is not unique to the military, it does seem to hit the military and veteran communities harder, perhaps due to the culture.
The number of first-time mental health diagnoses among active-duty members has risen steadily, from 132,079 in 2000 to 232,184 in 2012, according to the Armed Forces Health Surveillance Center.
And mental health diagnoses are the third most common diagnoses at VA behind musculoskeletal ailments and ill-defined conditions.
Another concern regarding treatment is fear of taking medication. While many patients can take medications without experiencing bad side effects, some antidepressants and other psychiatric drugs have side effects such as weight gain, sexual dysfunction, lethargy and more, and troops are hesitant to take anything that affects their game.
The government has quadrupled its mental health programs in the past six years. But it can do more, the experts said, to include promoting mental health care and understanding among primary care physicians, who can serve as liaisons between patients and mental health providers, promote community services and collaborate with community and private health organizations.
According to Navy Capt. Michael Colston, director of the Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury, mental health treatment must become accepted by the mainstream.
“Mental health care is health care. As for the self-stigma, we need to do research on that to determine how to fix it,” Colston said.