In the United States, Veteran’s Day is a federal holiday that is usually observed on November 11. During this time, we take a moment to honor those who have selflessly took on the duty of serving this country. One way to recognize and honor veterans is by developing an understanding of some of the struggles many veterans may encounter, as well as gaining basic cultural competency towards the veteran community. What better way to develop understanding of a particular mindset than to hear directly from the source itself, right?
While preparing for this article, I had the honor of interviewing four veterans. Below you will find various perspectives on how mental health is viewed and how to address mental health among the veteran community. Each of the individuals questioned have served significant time in the military and continue to serve other veterans who have now transitioned into the civilian culture.
For many years, mental health has been something not addressed among active-duty military. Though some progress has been made, there continues to be a stigma associated with both military veterans and civilians. According to licensed clinical social worker and Air Force Veteran, Royal Brown, the stigma associated with mental health issues is more “difficult to challenge” in the veteran community as compared to civilians.
When asked his perspective on the importance of mental health awareness among the veteran community and the general population? Royal stated:
“For one thing, admitting to any kind of anxiety or depression has been and continues to be a reason for discharge from military service. For active-duty service persons, this is a strong deterrent to admitting that there is a problem. PTSD as a diagnosis was first recognized and treated after Vietnam, even general Patton saw it as weakness during WW II. Things have come a long way since then, but it remains a MH dysfunction rather that a normal reaction to abnormal circumstances. There is also a lack of awareness of trauma, depression or other diagnoses that existed prior to entering basic training. Some of these may include personality disorders or addictions that may be detrimental to the overall mission. For individual veterans and active-duty service members approaching MH symptoms as treatable would be a good start. The same way the prescription glasses might be provided to address vision problems, medication and therapy could be provided to assist soldiers in maximizing their potential, before during and after active duty”. ~Royal Brown, LCSW (2021)
Often times, service members are expected to push down their emotions, which may lead them to ignore any apparent mental health concerns. When asked whether or not he feels veterans are hesitant to acknowledge their own mental health concerns, Royal replied:
“Yes, absolutely there is hesitancy among veterans, I’m not sure that this different from the larger population however. There are statistics regarding the high rate of suicides in the veteran community, that’s a fact. But personally, I question whether this represents a greater tendency to deny a problem with vets, or access and a willingness to use more lethal means of self-harm that is responsible for the higher death rated due to suicide.”
If you are a civilian, and you’d like to gain an understanding on how to approach a veteran in regards to their mental health, you may want to take heed to this following statement:
“For civilians, I think that the most important thing first and foremost, is to accept that they really can’t understand. The military is a separate culture that even military families can’t truly be a part of. Combat experience magnifies this exponentially. If family members, friends or coworkers find some words or behaviors either disturbing or worry about the emotional state of a vet, they should first try to guide that individual to the nearest VA. Many vets are discharged from active duty without the slightest knowledge of VA services or even locations. Other resources to suggest would be social or volunteer organizations where veterans are there to help other veterans. Trying to force a vet to open up and talk, or sending them to a civilian physician or therapist may actually do more harm than good.”
Sgt. Reginald Dockery, a retired army combat veteran shares his perspectives on the struggle’s veterans face while both in the military and post service. Dockery expresses his concerns for veterans in present time, asserting that the pandemic, combined with “pre-existing conditions”, such as homelessness, divorce, substance abuse, physical abuse etc. that the veteran community have been dealing with may be exasperated at this time. When asked about the importance of mental health in regards to the veteran community and the general population, the Sergeant stated that he feels mental health awareness is important for both veteran and civilian population.
When asked about the hesitancy of many veterans to address mental health concerns, Sgt. Dockery stated:
“Honestly, I think many veterans deep down inside are aware that they need help. But they are also aware that there are some people that really don’t care, or life is at the point for them they don’t have the time to seek the help. They may need to work to put food on the table and to them they have to just endure. The veteran has been trained to ignore the pain on the battlefield and the term “mission first” was the only important thing the higher-ranking officers were concerned with.” (Reginald Dockery, 2021, retired combat veteran, Desert Storm)
When it comes to veterans, no matter what branch of military one has served, the concerns appear to be very similar. When asking retired Navy Senior Chief, Erika Rogers, her perspective on veteran’s mental health:
“Mental Health amongst veterans is an unheard cry. The number of veterans who suffer from some form of mental illness is greater than one would imagine. Veterans go on to become teachers, fire fighters, paramedics etc., many without treatment. So, the community should be aware because veterans contribute to any and all communities.”
Do you feel that many veterans are hesitant to acknowledge their own mental health? If so, why do you feel this is the case?
“Yes, veterans are hesitant to report their own mental illness. In order to address the issues, you have to admit the problems you suffer from and veterans are trained from the beginning, programmed and encouraged just to suck it up for so many years, twenty plus years, thirty plus years, or however many they’ve served. So, once you retire or get out of the military, it’s truly difficult to switch the script and open up about your true feelings because you’ve held them in for so long and it’s frowned upon. So, if you are a stellar sailor, soldier etc.., once you’ve become a veteran you want to continue that and, in that case, they rarely admit to their illnesses.”
How can civilians become more culturally competent in regards to their understanding of the veteran community?
“Understanding that veterans may have many triggers, and sometimes the “too happy” may mean sad because you feel you can’t let anyone in or let anyone know how you really feel. So being are of this is important when trying to understand the veteran and mental health.” (Erika Rogers, Logistics Specialist Senior Chief, 2021)
Brian Roberts is an Air Force Veteran and case manager for the Supportive Services for Veteran Families (SSVF). Brian works with veterans on a daily basis, helping to provide transitional housing for veterans on the brink of or currently experiencing homelessness. Brian shares his views on mental health in the veteran community:
Can you share your perspective on the importance of mental health awareness among the veteran community?
“It is important that veterans who experience mental health conditions and substance use problems receive treatment and get the best quality care available. It’s been proven that mental health treatment improves recovery rates. It also reduces the likelihood of other negative consequences that can follow from mental health and substance use conditions, such as health deterioration and problems in relationships and work. Poor-quality care, by contrast, is less likely to lead to recovery. Furthermore, poor experiences with care can discourage veterans from seeking further care.”
Do you feel that many veterans are hesitant to acknowledge their own mental health issues? If so, why do you feel this is the case?
“Many veterans are highly resistant to the admission of their mental health issues. This can stem from an array of things such as fear for their family or themselves. The veteran may self-medicate to avoid facing these problems. The veteran may be in denial in the belief that anything is wrong. This denial could be based on the fact that admitting something is wrong could have fearful ramifications for what could happen to the vet or their family. Veterans operate with the attitude that we just suck it up and press on, but a lot of the times seeking help could feel like a sign of weakness. Seeking help can be overwhelming due to the fact of where do they start, who do they contact, not to mention mustering the courage to even ask for help to begin with. And lastly, they don’t want to relive the darkest moments of their life.”
What is something civilians should be cognizant of when trying to better understand veterans in regards to mental health? Or how can civilians become more culturally competent in regards to understanding the mind and mental wellness of a veteran?
“To better understand veterans, civilians must first take the time to understand their language, their structure, why they joined, their commitment to the mission, and the role of honor and sacrifice in military service. They need to understand that some of these veterans had the added stress of serving in a foreign land, spent countless hours in a miserable work environment that was punctuated by moments of transcendental terror and unimaginable, horrific destruction of life and property. With this improved understanding, civilians should be better equipped to handle the unique needs of the veterans’ mental health.”
-Brian Roberts, 2021-
It appears that the general consensus within the veteran community is that showing signs of mental illness, also means revealing signs of weaknesses. Many veterans are looked upon as heroes. But, how can one truly be a hero if he is showing signs of weakness, right?
It is important to understand these individuals share one common trait as civilians; they are still sentient beings, they still feel, they still hurt, and many still cry behind closed doors. Not all veterans ignore mental health issues, but a large amount does. Again, it is important to understand, mental health issues are not a sign of weakness, and it is a normal response to other than normal circumstances.
Common Mental Health Diagnosis in Veterans
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI, 2021), the primary mental health concerns encountered by those who have served in the military include, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), Depression, and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). Please visit the following link for more signs and symptoms of these conditions: https://www.nami.org/Your-Journey/Veterans-Active-Duty .
Other Common Issues Many Veterans Face
- Transitioning from active duty to civilian life
- Substance Use/Abuse
- Suicidal Ideation
- Sexual Trauma
Additional Resources and Information:
Check out the work Air Force Veteran Tiffany Orner has done in within the capital district veteran community: https://www.news10.com/news/remarkable-women-of-the-capital-region-tiffany-orner/
By, Ashley Vazquez, MFT, EAP Counselor
With Royal Brown, Reginald Dockery, Erika Rogers and Brian Roberts