Veterans are at high risk for substance misuse and consequently face the mental health stigmas that go with it. With more than one-tenth of military personnel struggling with a substance use disorder, finding ways to combat the substance use stigma is vital.

What Is a Stigma?

A stigma is a mark of shame or disgrace associated with a particular action, characteristic or mental condition. Once society has stigmatized a certain condition or action, it can take considerable time and effort to change. 

Mental health and substance use disorders have been stigmatized for decades. Although people are trying to change the damage to mental health stigmas, much work is needed.

Types of Stigmas and Their Effects on Veterans

Veterans face several types of stigma, each one having a significant impact on their mental well-being. 

Stigma and Mental Health

The stigma of mental health conditions in the military comes from the culture within the ranks. Military personnel must often put on a brave front while fighting on the frontlines. This leads to a stigma associated with anything perceived as “weak” or “unfit.”

Stigma and Substance Abuse

Veterans stigmatize substance use because it’s seen as a sign of weakness or lack of willpower to quit. Society puts the military to a higher standard because of their role in protecting the homeland and fighting America’s battles.

Because of these stigmas, the question arises, “Are veterans getting the help they need?” Let’s explore two ways this stigma hinders veterans from overcoming substance use.

Stigma and Social Isolation

Stigma puts a mark of shame on a person. This mark is from society, friends, loved ones and the person affected (internalized stigma). These factors may lead veterans to withdraw from others and become socially isolated, thus not getting needed help.

Stigma and Access to Care

Although veterans may technically be able to access treatment, their way is blocked by the stigma surrounding going. For example, veterans may feel that others would treat them differently if they sought help for addiction. They might worry that they could lose benefits and income if they report a substance use disorder.

Causes of Stigma on Veterans

How do stigmas occur? The following points to some of the causes of stigmas on veterans.

Stereotypes and Misconceptions About Substance Abuse

A stereotype is a predefined idea or belief about a group of people. The widely held belief is not based on facts. Some people view those with a substance use disorder in a negative light, not realizing the changes in the brain that take place during drug dependence. This stereotype leads to stigmatizing veterans with substance use disorder.

Negative Perceptions of Veterans

Some people have the wrong idea about veterans and perceive them negatively due to media stories or other influences.

Stigma Within the Military and Veteran Communities

The stigma of mental health conditions in the military can cause veterans to avoid seeking treatment. They may feel they won’t be accepted if word about their situation gets out to their military brothers and sisters.

Stigma in Society at Large

Most all stigma is shaped and propelled by society at large. When society indicates something is shameful or wrong, it leaves its mark.

The Impact of Stigma on Veterans With Substance Abuse

Veterans with substance use disorder are already struggling with their disorder. The impact of stigma only further compounds the problem in the following ways.

Emotional and Psychological Effects

You can imagine the emotional toll it would have on a person when others are wrongfully stereotyping them, leading to stigmatization. This may result in depression, anxiety and further substance misuse.

Reluctance To Seek Treatment

Veterans may not seek addiction treatment services due to military mental health stigma.

Lack of Access to Resources and Support

Obtaining a substance use treatment plan can be even more challenging for veterans who are alone. They may lack a ride to a rehab facility or not have a support system as they journey through the program.

Relationship Problems

When stigma hits close to home, it can impact the veterans’ family and friends, leading to relationship problems.

Internalization of Negative Beliefs

Stigma can take different forms, with one being self-stigma. This internalization of the negative stereotypes of others in society is one of the seven stigma categories recognized by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).

Increased Risk of Suicide

The suicide rate for veterans is approximately 57% greater than for non-veterans. The link between substance misuse among veterans and suicide is established, meaning anything that prevents them from care may increase their risk of death by suicide.

Chronic Health Problems

Several health conditions are connected to substance misuse. These chronic health issues may intensify without proper substance use treatment.

Reduced Quality of Life

Coping with the stigma of addiction can be stressful, depressing and worrisome. What kind of life does the veteran have in this case? It’s not one of quality and happiness.

Reducing Stigma and Improving the Lives of Veterans

Many actions have been implemented to help reduce the stigma around veteran substance misuse. Whether it’s a public figure speaking out or the development of new veteran programs for addiction, progress is being made in reducing stigma. Some of the methods implemented to achieve this include:  

  • Public education and awareness campaigns
  • Programs to encourage seeking treatment
  • Support for veterans in recovery
  • Collaboration between veterans and non-veterans

Treatment Options for Veterans

Veterans must be proactive about seeking help. Some treatment options that assist veterans with substance use disorders include the following:

Peer Support

Veterans can find support from other veterans who have been through what they are going through now. Peer support groups are ideal for connecting with others who understand the veteran’s emotions.

Medical Detox

During detox, veterans go through the process of getting rid of the drugs from their system. This can be a difficult time, as it involves the withdrawal of the drug and associated symptoms. Being in a rehab facility with trained professionals creates a safer, more comfortable environment for this part of recovery.

Dual Diagnosis Treatment

If a veteran has a mental health and substance use disorder at the same time, dual diagnosis treatment is in order. This treats both conditions, giving the person a better overall outcome.

Inpatient Rehab

An inpatient rehab program provides veterans with 24/7 care by rehab professionals.

Take the First Step to Recovery

Veterans can begin the journey to sobriety by taking the first step in their care. Reach out to The Recovery Village to start the admissions process and break the stigma of addiction.

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Veteran Recovery Is Our Mission

The Recovery Village is an industry-leading treatment provider for addiction and co-occurring mental health disorders. 

  • Experienced clinicians: Our clinicians are specially trained in trauma-informed care, military culture and treating veteran-specific addiction and mental health needs.
  • Dual diagnosis: We treat addiction and mental health disorders like PTSD, anxiety or depression simultaneously for a better recovery.  
  • EMDR: A revolutionary treatment available at several facilities, EMDR therapy alleviates mental pain and emotional recession from trauma, which can lead to better outcomes for your addiction.
  • FORTITUDE: Our specialty track for veterans and first responders at select facilities puts you in exclusive group therapy sessions with your peers. 

If you’re a veteran struggling with alcohol or drug addiction, our Veteran Advocates can help you navigate your VA health insurance and get you the help you need.

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Editor – Theresa Valenzky
Theresa Valenzky graduated from the University of Akron with a Bachelor of Arts in News/Mass Media Communication and a certificate in psychology. She is passionate about providing genuine information to encourage and guide healing in all aspects of life. Read more
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Medically Reviewed By – Danielle Boland
Danielle is licensed clinical social worker, currently living and practicing in central Connecticut. Read more
Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.