Not a System Apart: Veterans and Active-duty Troops Living with Mental Illness
by Kim Puchir, NAMI Communications Coordinator
Many Americans have some connection to the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan—among young people as many as three out of four know someone who is serving or has served on these fronts. For those of us who are a few degrees removed from the war, however, it is easy to think of the mental health needs of active-duty service members and veterans as existing in a system apart. To civilian eyes, both combat stress and Veterans Administration rules seem unfathomable. Yet there are many ways in which their fight—the fight for mental health treatment, the fight to recover from mental illness—is the same for people in the military, veterans and NAMI members alike.
Stigma, always a serious concern for NAMI, is a high-stakes issue for people serving in harm’s way; the high suicide rate among active-duty troops and veterans is of great concern to all branches of the military. Yet many troops are reluctant to mention symptoms of mental illness, fearing that seeking treatment may affect their careers. A survey of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan found that of those whose responses met the criteria of a mental illness, only 38 to 45 percent expressed an interest in receiving help.
One organization working to combat the stigma preventing some active-duty service members and veterans from seeking mental health care is Real Warriors, a great source for videos and personal stories from people in the military who have benefited from treatment. The military recognizes importance of combating fighting the stigma against seeking treatment for mental illness, but the current attention being paid to mental illness has been hard-won. Barry Morgan, who retired from the Navy in 1995, says that he was discouraged from seeking treatment for or even discussing his Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) until two or three years ago. “It was hard for me to talk to the VA about it; they told me a diagnosis of mental illness would mean no one would take me seriously,” he recalls. Nevertheless, there is a long tradition of veterans helping each other make sense of their experiences. Jim Stanek, a retired staff sergeant with the U.S. Army who completed three tours in Iraq, recalls, “My social worker was a Green Beret in Vietnam; he told me that my symptoms are normal for someone who had the combat experiences I did.”
One of NAMI’s core beliefs is that advocacy starts with spreading good information about mental illness. There are many misconceptions about military service and PTSD—that it only affects veterans who were in combat, and thus, that it doesn’t affect as many women as men. Barry says many veterans who acquired their PTSD from combat tell him, “You weren’t being shot at so it’s not the same.” Angela Peacock, a former U.S. Army sergeant and Iraq veteran, often encounters people who don’t believe she has PTSD. “They think women sit behind desks. I drove convoys in Baghdad with no armor on my truck. I could have died any day.” In fact, PTSD can affect people from all walks of life—civilians and soldiers—and mental illness among veterans is not limited to PTSD. Many of the other conditions NAMI advocates for, such as anxiety, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and depression, can touch people in the military.
NAMI’s current efforts to save mental health care funding on the state level are just one part of the legislation affecting access to mental health care. The treatment of mental illness for veterans and nonveterans depends on policy decisions which often affect both systems simultaneously. As Jon Towers, senior policy advisor on the U.S. Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs, noted, "The VA and DoD can't do it alone. We need to rely on community providers." Recent key legislation about mental illness, veterans and the military, such as the Veterans' Benefits Act of 2010, is summarized on the Public Policy and Veterans page. Changes in the VA’s rules for PTSD claims made headlines this year as well, easing the evidentiary standards for veterans claiming service-related PTSD. New legislation and programs will be required to help the country meet the special needs of the veteran population, who must wait for funding connected to such a divisive issue as the war. NAMI's advocacy efforts include bringing veterans' issues before the Senate—read NAMI Board member Clarence Jordan's testimony.
Cultural Issues and Treatment
The Veterans Administration is faced with some of the same issues as the mental health system at a whole: How to create treatment strategies tailored to the unique needs of each cultural group while reducing differences in incidence and outcome. Visit the Multicultural Resources page to learn about treatment disparities and how PTSD affects people from different populations.
Another area where civilian and veteran mental illness issues intersect is the need for new treatment. Learn about the service dogs Barry, Angela and Jim use to treat their PTSD in The Role of Service Animals in Recovery, an article for the NAMI Advocate.
Other Issues Affecting Veterans
"Our motto is 'Never leave a comrade behind.' It’s our responsibility as veterans living with mental illness to educate people about PTSD and the mental health issues facing the military today,” says Jim. He has started a nonprofit organization, Paws and Stripes, to help veterans living with PTSD train their own service dogs. NAMI has a similar mission—we don’t want to see anyone living with mental illness be left behind. On this Veterans Day, and throughout the year, let’s all support veterans and active-duty service members with mental illness—their cause is our cause.
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