Our military service members commit themselves to their nation and comrades, believing that what they do assists, protects, and defends our nation, often placing themselves in harm’s way. As a result, many service members suffer mental health challenges.
Those who served deserve only the best when it comes to mental health support, but many are hesitant to seek the help they need after experiencing traumatic events. Because of the perceived social stigma that comes with seeking mental health support, many veterans suffer in silence.
Suffering in silence
In a culture where strength, mental toughness, and courage are highly valued, seeking mental health support becomes challenging. This can lead veterans to withdraw and turn inward, keeping their psychological pain to themselves and attempting to work it out on their own.
While suffering in silence, many learn to maintain their strong military identity and portray themselves as healthy and well in public. Emerging on a new battlefield of the mind, many service members begin to believe they’re weak, damaged, not good enough and incapable of being productive civilians because of the stigma involved. This paradox of mental health, social stigma, and military culture can become debilitating for service members and veterans alike, thus inadvertently reinforcing these stigmas. When left untreated, the veterans’ trauma experience can have a wide range of effects.
The intersectionality of veterans’ health and military culture impacts veterans and their family members simultaneously. While the veteran suffers in silence, it’s not uncommon for a spouse or partner and children to suffer in secret as well. I’m often taken aback by the enormous impact on the family system when a veteran experiences mental health challenges. Historically, when the service member or veteran has been diagnosed with a mental health illness, it’s often not explained to the family members that they will likely experience a wide range of emotions and feelings also.
Family members sometimes fight their own mental wars, attempting to process their emotions while trying to take care of their wounded warrior. Some spouses may experience grief from the loss of the relationship they remember before the psychological injury. They may also experience some levels of guilt and helplessness for not being able to do more in helping their veteran heal.
The children, depending on their age, can also experience conflict and confusion when attempting to process why their parent is acting differently. As a result, some children learn to compartmentalize their thoughts and emotions as a form of coping. The mental trauma experienced by veterans can become an open wound with no definite time frame on when it will be resolved, which impacts the entire family system.
Meanwhile, the veterans, while valiantly choosing to serve their nation, did not ask for their psychological injury, nor did they ask for the impact it has on their families. The trauma can be a complex journey for a family, but it’s one that doesn’t have to be walked alone. The mental health community stands ready to support and assist in facilitating families’ healing.
Over the past decade, veterans have been working closely and collaboratively with the mental health community to help us help them. We have found that the American veteran is strong, courageous, and resilient. We seek to help veterans understand that what they’re now experiencing are normal reactions to abnormal events, and there continues to be a growing number of efforts designed to support them and their families as they cope with mental health challenges. These efforts begin with countering social stigma and misinformation about seeking help.
Veterans no longer have to suffer in silence. They can get the help they need from mental health professionals who are compassionate, understanding, and qualified to support their needs.