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Stigma Impacts Substance Abuse and Mental Health Care in Veterans

Written by The Recovery Village

& Medically Reviewed by Dr. Kevin Wandler, MD

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Last Updated - 06/30/2024

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Updated 06/30/2024

Key Takeaways

  • Stigma is a significant barrier to mental health and substance use disorder care for veterans, with military culture often exacerbating the issue.
  • Over 20% of veterans with PTSD also have a substance use disorder, and approximately 60% of veterans in need of care do not seek treatment due to stigma.
  • Efforts to reduce stigma include training military leadership, establishing supportive programs like Combat Operational Stress Control, and campaigns like the Real Warriors Campaign.
  • Stigma can lead to severe consequences for veterans, including depression, substance use, and an increased risk of suicide.
  • Stigma affects not only veterans with PTSD but also casts a shadow on all veterans, potentially hindering their integration into civilian life.
  • Depression and alcohol use among veterans are worsened by stigma, which can lead to isolation and delayed care.
  • Addressing stigma involves changing military culture, educating leadership, and providing accessible, veteran-specific programs.
  • Healthcare providers play a crucial role in reducing stigma and improving the quality of care for veterans.
  • Community and family support are essential in combating stigma and promoting a supportive environment for veterans.

Stigma in Veterans’ Mental Health and Substance Use

The stigma surrounding mental health and substance use disorders in veterans is a significant barrier to seeking and receiving care. Combat experiences, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and insufficient mental healthcare resources contribute to a high prevalence of self-medication among veterans.

Prevalence of PTSD and Substance Use Disorders

Studies reveal that over 20% of veterans with PTSD also have a substance use disorder (SUD). These numbers have been rising due to increased PTSD rates from recent conflicts. Research also indicates that nearly 29% of veterans from the War on Terror are diagnosed with PTSD at some point in their lives.

Impact of Military Culture

Military culture, which often values self-sufficiency and prioritizes the needs of the service over the individual, can exacerbate stigma. This culture may lead veterans to avoid seeking treatment for mental health and substance use issues.

Efforts to Reduce Stigma

  • Efforts to reduce stigma include:
  • Training for military leadership
  • Establishing Combat Operational Stress Control programs
  • Creating veteran-specific initiatives such as the Real Warriors Campaign

These programs aim to foster a supportive culture and promote positive attitudes toward seeking help.

Current Challenges

Despite these efforts, approximately 60% of veterans who would benefit from care do not seek the necessary treatment, with stigma playing a potential role in this reluctance.

Addressing the Stigma

Understanding the depth and impact of stigma is crucial for improving veterans’ access to mental health and substance use care. Addressing stigma involves not only cultural change within the military and veteran communities but also ensuring adequate resources and support systems are in place for those in need.

Stigma in the Context of Veteran Substance Abuse and Mental Health

Stigma is a powerful social phenomenon characterized by negative stereotypes and discrimination towards individuals based on an identifying characteristic, such as mental health conditions or substance use.

Stigma Among Veterans

For veterans, stigma often manifests in the form of prejudiced attitudes, misunderstandings, and social exclusion, which can significantly hinder their willingness to seek and receive appropriate care. Research shows that veterans with combat-related PTSD may avoid mental health services due to stigma, potentially leading to severe consequences like depression and suicide.

Military Culture and Stigma

In the military community, stigma can arise from the culture of resilience and self-sufficiency, where seeking help may be viewed as a sign of weakness. This perception can persist even after service, influencing a veteran’s decision-making around seeking treatment for substance use or mental health issues.

Combating Stigma

Efforts are underway to combat stigma through:

  • Education
  • Changing the culture around mental health care
  • Implementing veteran-specific programs that emphasize the strength in seeking help


Studies have found that stigma is not only an external force but can also be internalized, leading to self-stigma, where veterans may adopt these negative beliefs about themselves.

Importance of Addressing Stigma

Addressing stigma is critical in improving mental health and substance use outcomes among veterans. It involves dismantling misconceptions, promoting understanding, and creating environments where seeking help is seen as a courageous step towards recovery.

Ongoing Efforts

The Department of Defense and the VA are actively working to reduce stigma and facilitate access to mental health care, recognizing the importance of mental well-being for service members and veterans alike.

Military Culture’s Role in Stigmatizing Mental Health and Substance Abuse

The stigma surrounding mental health and substance use in military culture has deep roots and multifaceted origins. Military values, which emphasize strength, resilience, and self-sufficiency, often conflict with the perceived vulnerability associated with mental health issues and substance use disorders. This cultural dissonance can lead to a reluctance among service members to seek help for fear of being perceived as weak or unfit for duty.

Historical Influences

Studies have identified that military policies have historically contained language that could be perceived as stigmatizing. This language may inadvertently reinforce negative stereotypes and discourage individuals from accessing care.

Policy Revisions and Programs

Efforts to combat stigma have included:

  • Policy revisions to remove pejorative language
  • Implementation of programs aimed at fostering a supportive culture for seeking mental health and substance use services

Recommendations and Ongoing Efforts

The RAND Corporation has provided recommendations for further reducing stigma, such as:

  • Standardizing non-stigmatizing language in military policies
  • Improving education on mental health within the military community

Persistent Stigmatizing Perceptions

Despite these efforts, stigmatizing perceptions persist. These perceptions are influenced by historical attitudes and the military’s unique environment, which often prioritizes mission readiness over individual well-being.

Promoting Positive Attitudes

Initiatives like the Real Warriors Campaign and embedded Behavioral Health teams have been instrumental in promoting positive attitudes toward mental health care. However, there is a recognized need for ongoing cultural change to address and dismantle the stigma that prevents many service members and veterans from seeking the help they need.

The Need for Understanding

Understanding the complex interplay between military culture, identity, and stigma is crucial for developing effective interventions and supporting the mental health and well-being of those who serve.

The Impact of Stigma on Veterans with PTSD

Stigma surrounding Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) among veterans is a significant barrier to seeking and receiving necessary mental health care. Research indicates that military personnel with PTSD often choose not to seek help due to the negative perceptions associated with mental health issues within military and civilian communities. This reluctance can lead to severe consequences, including depression, substance use, and an increased risk of suicide. Studies show that the lifetime prevalence of PTSD diagnoses in US military personnel varies considerably, with estimates ranging from 10% to over 30%.

Impact on All Veterans

Stigma not only affects those who have PTSD but also casts a shadow on all veterans, regardless of their mental health status. Misinformation and stereotypes contribute to a societal stigma that can result in discrimination and misunderstanding. This pervasive issue hinders the ability of veterans to integrate into civilian life, secure employment, and build social relationships. The misconceptions about PTSD can also lead to veterans being unfairly labeled, which can exacerbate the symptoms of those directly affected by the disorder.

Self-Stigma and Its Consequences

Furthermore, self-stigma, which is the internalization of these negative stereotypes, is reported by a significant portion of veterans with PTSD. This internalized shame can worsen mental health symptoms and act as a barrier to seeking care.

Efforts to Reduce Stigma

Efforts to reduce stigma and improve access to mental health services are critical for the well-being of veterans with PTSD. Programs like the Readjustment Counseling Service/Vet Center aim to decrease mental health stigma and encourage veterans to engage with mental health services, as noted by the US Department of Veterans Affairs.

The Link Between Stigma and Depression Among Veterans

Depression among veterans is a significant concern, with the stigma surrounding mental health issues serving as a formidable barrier to seeking and receiving treatment. The perception of depression as a sign of weakness can lead to a reluctance to acknowledge symptoms or pursue help. This stigma is rooted in military culture, where strength and resilience are highly valued, and any admission of psychological distress may be viewed as a vulnerability.

Negative Labeling and Societal Views

Studies have indicated that veterans experiencing depression often face negative labeling and a societal view that equates mental health struggles with personal failure. Such stigmatization can exacerbate feelings of isolation and hopelessness, further hindering recovery. Additionally, the normalization of depressive symptoms within the veteran community can lead to a dangerous underestimation of the severity of one’s condition, delaying essential care.

Impact on Treatment Engagement

Research from the National Center for Biotechnology Information suggests that stigma not only affects personal attitudes toward depression but also impacts treatment preferences and care engagement among veterans. The stigma associated with mental health can manifest in various ways, including fear of unwanted labels and a belief that depression is a normal part of the veteran experience, which can prevent individuals from seeking the care they need.

Reducing Stigma and Encouraging Treatment

Addressing this stigma is crucial for improving mental health outcomes for veterans. Healthcare providers, community programs, and family support systems play vital roles in reducing stigma and encouraging treatment. By fostering an environment where mental health is openly discussed and treated with the same urgency as physical health, we can begin to dismantle the barriers that prevent veterans from accessing the care they deserve.

The Role of Stigma in Veterans’ Substance Abuse

Stigma surrounding substance use and mental health issues in veterans is a critical barrier to seeking and receiving treatment. The military culture, which often values self-sufficiency and resilience, can inadvertently perpetuate negative perceptions of those needing help, labeling them as ‘weak’ or ‘unfit.’ This stigma can lead to detrimental outcomes, including the exacerbation of substance use disorders (SUDs) and mental health conditions.

Vulnerability of Veterans with PTSD

Research indicates that veterans with combat-related Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) are particularly vulnerable, as the stigma attached to mental health issues can prevent them from seeking necessary services. This may result in substance use as a form of self-medication.

Prevalence of Substance Use Disorders

The prevalence of SUDs among veterans is alarming, with significant numbers reporting issues with alcohol and illicit drug use. Stigma not only affects veterans’ willingness to seek help but can also influence the quality of care they receive, as healthcare providers may unconsciously harbor stigmatizing beliefs.

Efforts to Combat Stigma

Programs such as Military Pathways and The Real Warriors Campaign aim to reduce stigma by promoting positive attitudes towards seeking help and highlighting that mental health and substance use issues are not uncommon. Despite these efforts, a large proportion of veterans who could benefit from care do not seek treatment, with stigma playing a significant role in this gap.

Addressing and Overcoming Stigma

It is crucial to address and overcome both self-imposed and cultural stigma to ensure that veterans receive the comprehensive care they need. This involves a concerted effort to educate military leadership, change the culture around mental health care, and provide veteran-specific programs that encourage engagement in treatment and support recovery.

The Impact of Stigma on Alcohol Abuse Among Veterans

Alcohol use among veterans is a significant concern, with stigma playing a pivotal role in both the perpetuation of substance misuse and the reluctance to seek treatment. The military culture, which often values self-sufficiency and resilience, may contribute to the internalization of negative beliefs surrounding substance use, leading veterans to view seeking help as a sign of weakness. This stigma can result in a multitude of adverse effects, including increased risk of interpersonal violence, poorer health, and higher mortality rates.

Efforts to Combat Stigma

Efforts to combat stigma have included the integration of mental health and substance use treatment providers into military units, the establishment of supportive educational materials, and the development of veteran-specific programs. These initiatives aim to foster a culture where seeking help is seen as a strength and to encourage veterans to engage in care. Despite these efforts, many veterans still do not receive the treatment they need, partly due to the persistent stigma associated with alcohol misuse.

Impact of the Coronavirus Pandemic

Recent studies have shown that alcohol misuse among veterans has risen during the coronavirus pandemic, further emphasizing the need for targeted interventions. Additionally, issues such as military sexual trauma (MST) and past trauma are linked to an increased risk of developing alcohol use disorders, indicating that comprehensive care must address both substance use and underlying mental health conditions.

Addressing Stigma and Improving Care

It is imperative to continue to educate military leadership, change the culture around mental health care, and provide accessible, veteran-specific programs that address the unique challenges faced by this population. By doing so, the barriers imposed by stigma may be reduced, leading to improved outcomes for veterans struggling with alcohol misuse.

The Influence of Stigma on Drug Abuse Among Veterans

Stigma surrounding drug use significantly impacts veterans, often discouraging them from seeking the help they need. Research indicates that stigma can manifest as negative judgments or discrimination, leading to a reluctance to access treatment for substance use disorders (SUDs). The NIH HEAL Initiative found that stigma affects not only individuals with opioid use disorder but also the clinicians who treat them, suggesting a pervasive issue that hampers both care delivery and recovery efforts.

Efforts to Mitigate Stigma

Efforts to mitigate this stigma have included training military leadership to foster a supportive culture and integrating mental health and substance use treatment into military units. The Army, for example, has made strides in establishing psychological health care services accessible during non-duty hours and promoting positive attitudes towards seeking help. Despite these efforts, significant challenges remain. Roughly 60% of veterans who could benefit from care do not seek the necessary treatment, with stigma being a contributing factor.

Factors Exacerbating Substance Use Disorders

Combat exposure, military sexual trauma, and the transition to civilian life are all factors that can exacerbate SUDs in veterans. A lack of access to healthcare services, especially within the VA system, further compounds the risk of substance use and overdose.

The Need for Evidence-Based Strategies

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has recognized the need for evidence-based strategies to support veterans, emphasizing the importance of interdisciplinary approaches and specialized treatments that consider the unique experiences of military personnel.

Strategies for Addressing Mental Health and Substance Abuse Stigma in Veteran Care

Stigma surrounding mental health and substance use is a significant barrier that prevents many veterans from seeking the care they need.

Strategies to Combat Stigma

To combat this, several strategies have been implemented to foster a supportive environment for veterans. The military has taken steps such as:

  • Training leadership to promote a stigma-free culture.
  • Making psychological health care services available during non-duty hours.
  • Developing educational materials aimed at reducing stigma.

Integrating Treatment into Unit Services

Programs like Combat Operational Stress Control and Embedded Behavioral Health teams integrate treatment providers into unit services, encouraging open discussions about mental health.

Online Resources and Campaigns

Online resources such as Military Pathways provide self-assessments and mental health education. Campaigns like Real Warriors emphasize the strength in seeking help. The Department of Defense’s Real Warriors Campaign and initiatives like Military OneSource offer round-the-clock support and information to improve mental health literacy and reduce stigma.

Educating Military Leadership

To address stigma effectively, it is crucial to educate military leadership and change the culture around seeking mental health care. Veteran-specific programs are designed to:

  • Decrease stigma.
  • Engage veterans in care.
  • Highlight that seeking help is a sign of strength, not weakness.

Importance of Efforts

These efforts are vital as they not only encourage veterans to seek treatment but also aim to change the narrative around mental health and substance use within the military community.

Healthcare Providers and Mitigating Stigma in Veteran Care

Healthcare providers are pivotal in reducing stigma and improving the care of veterans with mental health and substance use issues. Stigma in healthcare, characterized by negative perceptions and discrimination, presents a significant barrier to accessing treatment and can diminish the quality of care. It can also influence help-seeking behavior among veterans, who may already be hesitant to seek support due to perceived stigma within military culture.

Training Programs to Address Stigma

Training programs, such as the free online course ‘Understanding Stigma’ by the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC) and the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), equip healthcare providers with strategies to address stigma. These programs focus on improving empathy and understanding of mental health and addiction issues, which is essential for fostering a supportive environment for veterans.

Collaborative Approaches

Healthcare professionals can also learn from mental health service users through interventions like the RESHAPE program in Nepal, where they are trained to co-facilitate mental health services. This collaborative approach can help dismantle stigma and encourage a more inclusive and understanding healthcare setting.

Awareness-Raising Resources

Awareness-raising resources, such as those emphasizing the stigma around long-term opioid therapy (LTOT), highlight the need for healthcare providers to recognize and actively counteract stigma to ensure proper care for individuals dependent on these medications.

Adopting a Universal Precautions Approach

Ultimately, healthcare providers must adopt a universal precautions approach, acknowledging that stigma can affect anyone and taking proactive steps to minimize its impact in healthcare settings. This includes being aware of their own potential biases and fostering a culture where veterans feel safe and respected when seeking help for mental health and substance use issues.

The Role of Community and Family Support in Combating Stigma Among Veterans

Community and family support plays a crucial role in reducing the stigma associated with mental health and substance use issues among veterans. These support systems can provide a sense of belonging, understanding, and acceptance often lacking in broader society.

Effectiveness of Multi-level Interventions

Research indicates that multi-level stigma interventions, which include community and family engagement, are effective in mitigating stigma and promoting better outcomes for individuals with mental health challenges. Studies suggest that interventions at the community level can change public perceptions and improve the social environment for veterans facing mental health and substance use disorders.

Importance of Family Involvement

Family involvement is pivotal in addressing stigma. A supportive family can foster a nonjudgmental space for veterans to discuss their experiences and seek help. This support is not only critical for the individual’s recovery but also assists in educating family members about the complexities of mental health and substance use, further reducing stigma.

Impact of Community-based Mental Health Services

Community-based mental health services have been shown to reduce stigma by increasing accessibility and normalizing help-seeking behavior. Community-based initiatives often focus on awareness and education, which are essential in dismantling misconceptions and promoting inclusivity.

Advocacy and Systemic Change

Furthermore, community and family support networks can advocate for veterans’ rights and push for systemic changes that address the root causes of stigma. By providing education, sharing personal success stories, and fostering open dialogue, these networks can create a more supportive environment for veterans to receive the care they need without fear of judgment or discrimination.

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The Recovery Village at Baptist Health is an industry-leading treatment provider for addiction and co-occurring mental health disorders. Our clinicians are specially trained in trauma-informed care, military culture and treating veteran-specific addiction and mental health needs. We’re also proud members of the VA Community Care Network, so we can accept VA health benefits as payment at no cost to the veteran.If you’re a veteran struggling with alcohol or drug addiction, our physician-led, private rehab program could be your path to recovery. Call us today and request a specialized Veteran Advocate to assist you.