Addiction Stigma in the Military

Effects of Addiction Stigma in Active Military and Veterans

Just like other workers, veterans suffer from mental illnesses and addictions but at comparatively higher rates because of the nature of their work. Unfortunately, and unlike other workers, these veterans often do not get adequate help. For example, approximately half of veterans with mental illnesses and 90% of those with substance use disorders do not receive treatment. The main reason for this lack of adequate help is stigma.

Stigma Among Active Military and Veterans

Stigma is the feeling of being discriminated against or disapproved of because you belong to a group of people who are perceived to have a behavior or characteristic different from the rest of society. The majority of those stigmatized face mental illnesses. This is why many people with mental illness say that they are treated badly by others.

You may experience discrimination or unfair treatment, isolation, hopelessness, and shame if you’re stigmatized. When you internalize the stigma, you may feel something is wrong with you because of your mental (or physical) state.

Military culture contributes significantly to the stigma surrounding mental health and addiction. For example, the military places a lot of emphasis on self-sufficiency and masculinity. This makes it difficult for veterans to seek help elsewhere, so they rely fully on their fellow veterans. Many veterans feel that if they seek help elsewhere, there’s a fear that they’ll be branded as being weak and not worthy of being in the service. At, we are here to provide veterans and active military personnel with free mental health and addiction resources so they can beat addiction.

There’s also the fear that, after seeking external help, their leaders and peers will start treating them differently. Stigmas can also arise from these false beliefs, such as:

  • Willpower alone can help overcome addiction.
  • Drug addicts can stop, but they don’t want to.
  • People with mental health problems can overcome this problem if they are willing to do so.
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder shows that an individual is weak.
  • People with mental illness or addiction are manipulative or dangerous.

The above beliefs are very strong, explaining why most service members fear speaking to psychiatrists formally and choose to seek help using informal channels. They don’t want to talk about their mental health problems formally because they don’t want to be judged.

Stigma leads to adverse effects on veterans who need medical or psychiatric help. For example, it may lead to depression, lowered performance, and the inability to seek the help they need.

Where Does Stigma Originate?

Stigma may come from specific people or society in general. It may also come from within or outside a group. In the case of the military, service members with mental health problems or those who are addicted may be stigmatized by fellow servicemen or civilians. The media is also a victim.

The media often portrays people with mental health problems and those suffering from addiction as misfits in society. Books, movies, and television shows can have a common narrative: Drug addicts and people with mental illness should be viewed as “abnormal” people who can be discriminated against.

Service members and veterans who are discriminated against eventually develop self-stigma. This happens when they believe and internalize the negative treatment they experience from society, their peers, or their leaders. For example, service members seeking help for PTSD or drug abuse may perceive themselves as weak, blame themselves for suffering from these conditions, and believe they lack the willpower to overcome them.

Self-stigma is the main cause of isolation, low self-esteem, shame, anxiety, depression, and other emotional problems. People suffering from self-stigma can become uninterested in life and may not pursue opportunities like promotions at their workplaces or even treatment for their health problems.

The Effect of Addiction Stigma on Veterans

Any addiction-related stigma, whether self-stigma or public stigma, may prevent many military personnel from seeking the medical and psychiatric interventions they may need. Unfortunately, this worsens their conditions and may lead to fatal consequences. Statistics show that the challenges associated with the stigma of addiction are real and require immediate intervention so that vets can get the help they need without discrimination.

It is estimated that 20% of servicemen with substance use disorders struggle with alcoholism, 25% with drug addiction, and about 8% struggle with both.

In a survey conducted in 2007/2008 among servicemen, it was found that 43.6% of them feared seeking help, citing that this could jeopardize their careers. About 30% were worried about the lack of trust among coworkers, and 29% were more worried about keeping information private.

People in the military and among veterans think that vets should be physically and mentally healthy enough to handle their problems without help from outside sources.
In a study that tried to find out why stigmatized people don’t get help, 44.2% of the people who answered said that they were afraid their seniors would start to see them differently, and 42.9% said they were afraid people would think they were weak.
About 60% of military personnel who experience substance use disorder or mental illness don’t seek help.

Illicit drug use is one of the leading causes of serious medical problems like heart disease, stroke, various cancers, HIV/AIDS, and pulmonary diseases. Overdosing on drugs can also cause death, depending on the drug used. Excessive alcohol consumption can lead to the same problems, and both increase the chances of injuries and accidents.

Service Men’s Mental Health and Addiction Stigma

Sanism, the stigma associated with mental health and addiction, is very common. Just like other stigmas, sanism may lead to negative effects like discrimination that end up affecting an individual’s life. Some negative sentiments associated with people facing addiction and mental illness are “weak,” “unpredictable,” “moody,” and “crazy.” When these words are constantly used to refer to an individual, that person will internalize them and believe that’s what or who they are.

One study conducted in Australia found that about one in four people believe depressed people are weak. The study also found that 40% believe depressed people are unpredictable. In the same study, more stigmatizing attitudes were revealed towards people with schizophrenia. It was found that over 60% of people believe people with schizophrenia are unpredictable, and 25% believe schizophrenics are dangerous.

In reality, people suffering from addiction or those who are mentally ill are unlikely to cause harm but are more likely to suffer at the hands of “normal” people. Most of these sufferers are never violent. For example, people with no mental illness commit 95% of violent crimes in the United States. This information may not be available to the public, explaining why people believe most crimes are committed by mentally ill people or people suffering from addiction.

Addiction and alcoholism are serious health conditions that should not be associated with negative attitudes like “lack of willpower,” “overindulgence,” or “moral weakness.” The truth is that most people start using alcohol or drugs voluntarily, but as addiction sets in, they lose control over their ability to stop using those drugs. This process is progressive, and the victim may not realize the point in time when they become addicted. This is because drug abuse causes some changes to the victim’s brain, leading to the loss of control over their own lives.

Vets face the same stigmas associated with addiction and mental problems. This is because civilians and their seniors expect them to be strong or have superhuman abilities to deal with mental health and addiction problems.

Mental health problems and substance abuse are common among veterans because of the nature of their work, but many don’t seek help because of stigma. The few who seek help are likely to miss appointments, drop out of the treatment program, or fail to comply with the treatment requirements.

The ones who fail to seek help do so because they fear being labeled as addicts or people with mental health conditions and being discriminated against, rejected, or judged by their peers or seniors. The few vets who have mustered the courage to seek help have realized that these fears have no basis. Some have been surprised to realize that many people are ready to support and help them through their recovery processes.

Some military personnel prefer seeking help for physical problems rather than mental ones because of stigma. For example, a vet with a heart problem will not fear seeking help because they won’t fear being judged for lack of exercise or poor diet. They expect their handlers to empathize and give them proper medical attention. This is not the case with addiction or mental health victims, where there’s a fear that those problems will be associated with their weaknesses.

Although many servicemen know there’s a stigma around getting external help, only a few say they can judge their peers for seeking the help they need. This is because they understand what their peers undergo. It’s also worth mentioning that addiction and mental health advocates are working around the clock to encourage people to seek help whenever they need it. They want veterans to understand that failure to seek help will negatively impact their lives. Many treatment options are available for veterans willing to seek help.

Overcoming Veteran Stigmas

Veterans face many risks and challenges that can lead to mental health issues, substance use disorders, or both. Avoiding or pushing off treatment for addiction or mental health can only aggravate the problems. Even though cost and location of care can also keep vets from getting the help they need, stigma is the most common reason.

Even with modern medical facilities and qualified medical personnel at their disposal, some veterans fail to take advantage of these services. When a veteran self-stigmatizes or associates mental health and addiction problems with being weak, it becomes difficult to help them because these feelings affect their self-esteem.

Overcoming societal stigma or self-stigma related to mental health and addiction is important for servicemen. It all starts with the vets accepting their condition and realizing that their health is at stake. Some steps veterans can take to cope with or reduce self-stigma include:

  • Accepting that they have an addiction or mental health problem. It’s hard to help an individual who lives in denial
  • Talking to their peers or loved ones about their conditions, especially those who have overcome similar challenges (SUD or addiction)
  • Engaging in physical activities is more or less what they love doing most
  • Doing yoga, meditation, or other relaxation techniques
  • Acknowledging their positive traits, values, and strengths and growing their self-esteem.
  • Lessening their exposure to stigmatizing messages
  • Appreciating the fact that seeking help is not a sign of weakness

Military Concerns About Addiction Stigma

Dealing with addiction stigma needs a concerted effort involving healthcare providers, civilians, and even the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD). This explains why the DOD initiated changes to encourage vets to seek help for their substance abuse and mental health disorders. They also took steps to reduce the stigma associated with drug abuse and mental health issues among veterans.

The DOD developed a framework to develop a supportive culture that could see military personnel seeking help for their addictions or mental health issues treated without discrimination. The department recognized mental health as a crucial component of the vets’ well-being, and the DOD has also increased the diversity and training of its support personnel.

The army has already begun training high-ranking officials about fostering a supportive culture and reducing stigma in their installations. Additionally, they have established psychological healthcare facilities and have trained personnel on standby during non-duty hours. They have also developed educational materials to enlighten their officers and help reduce stigma.

Veterans are encouraged by their seniors to seek help for their addictions and mental health issues.