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Veterans with mental illness or addiction need help. Increasing awareness to help this population be seen is a critical part of changing some worrying trends. At least from the 20th century onward, vets have been more likely to have a mental health disorder compared to the general population. But, the need for mental health care and substance abuse treatment for veterans has grown steadily over the past 20 years. The reasons why are complex. Military life definitely comes with its challenges.

Raising Awareness for Veterans with Mental Illness or Addiction 

Veterans are more likely to have had traumatic experiences in the course of their careers or personal lives. These experiences, or even a traumatic brain injury (TBI) can lead to mental health disorders. Veterans with mental illness tend to be more self-sufficient than most. Ordinarily self-sufficiency is an asset, but when it leads to someone not asking for the help they need it can work against them. Self-sufficiency is admirable, but alone, it cannot resolve or prevent trauma, addiction or other mental health disorders a vet may face. Vets are often the breadwinners in their households or the one others turn to for emotional strength. Often it’s both. But a problem occurs when the veteran themselves needs help. 

Obstacles Between Veterans and Addiction or Mental Health Treatment

There are several factors that can make getting mental health help for vets a challenge. One is simply navigating the VA’s services and the Community Care Network to make sure you or the vet you love gets the help they need. But one of the biggest obstacles, ironically, is often the veterans who need help themselves. When you are looked upon as a source of strength for others, it’s easy to feel as if you will be letting people down if you need help yourself.

This applies to veterans with mental illness or addiction as much as anyone else. The weight of responsibility, pride, fear, misunderstanding about the help available and where it will lead. Depression itself, ironically can take the wind out of your sails making it tough to get the help you need. Similarly, anxiety can paralyze us into inaction. All of these factors too often stand in the way of substance abuse treatment for veterans. They prevent veterans with mental illness from asking for help in the first place. The crux of the problem can largely be boiled down to one issue however. Stigma. 

What is Stigma?

A stigma is a kind of prejudice or bias we hold against someone or a group of people. Unfortunately there are still some stigmas in our society around addiction and mental illnesses. Veterans with mental illness or chemical dependency aren’t immune to these. If anything, they are more subject to them than most. Military culture is largely designed to encourage conformity, rule following, self-discipline and self-reliance. These are all good things generally speaking and necessary for military life. But, they can also work against us in ways. No one would suggest that a type 1 diabetic couldn’t make insulin because they “lacked discipline”. 

If someone is sick or injured, they should be encouraged and empowered to get help so they can stand on their own two feet again and be at their best. Sadly, when it comes to veterans with mental illness and substance abuse treatment for veterans this isn’t how things often play out. Veterans with PTSD symptoms or depression often resist asking for help out of fear of being seen as weak or “crazy” or “flagged” somehow. Sometimes it’s nothing more than stubborn pride or a desire not to be a burden to others. Whatever the reason or stigma which is preventing a veteran from getting the help they need, it’s a serious problem. 

Can We Do Anything to Help?

Yes! Whether you are a veteran or the family member of one, or just a concerned friend, there are things you can do to help. One of the easiest things we can do is begin to combat the stigmas around addiction and mental illnesses. Alleviating the negative effects caused by stigmas around veterans getting mental health help is especially important. This can begin with something as simple as changing the way we speak about these things. Words have more power than we imagine. Changing the way we talk about addiction and mental illness is the first step towards changing the way people think about them. We should strive to take a compassionate and supportive approach and that ought to be reflected in the way we speak about these topics. 

For Example:

  • Don’t use the term “PTSD” when joking around. PTSD is a serious condition that many people have for life. It’s not a joke. 
  • Never shame someone for an addiction. Addiction is a disease. Yes, we may end up addicted as a result of poor decision making sometimes, but the person who is truly addicted is in crisis and in need of help and compassion, not judgment, if you really want them to get sober. 
  • Don’t use the term “crazy” or make light of mental illnesses or depression. Instead, let people know you are a safe person to talk to about their mental health without fear of judgment or gossip. 
  • Make others aware that you are empathetic about addiction and mental illness and that you are a safe person to talk to and can be trusted to keep things private and not to be judgmental. 

If You’re a Veteran with Mental Illness or an Addiction

The military teaches us to be strong and self-reliant and to comply with orders. That way of thinking can help us accomplish great things. For many of us, it comes from family and our upbringing as much as military life. This point of view doesn’t leave us when our military service is over either. It stays with us for life in one form or another. Unfortunately, the stigmas and biases about addiction and mental illness we have learned usually do too. If you are experiencing depression, anxiety, symptoms of PTSD or any other mental health disorder, including addiction, it is very important that you get comfortable with talking about it. We won’t tell you it’s easy. It isn’t. But, you can definitely do it and it’s worth doing. The good news is that the VA and veterans as a community are coming around where mental disorders and addiction are concerned. 

A Growth in Understanding

They are behind the rest of society as a whole a bit perhaps, but there is way more help and understanding out there now than there was just 15-20 years ago. The key here is to advocate for yourself and to keep training yourself to think of mental illness or addiction as a disease, because that’s exactly what they are. Mental disorders like depression, anxiety and PTSD are illnesses. They are not your fault. They are not the product of a “weak mind” or a lack of will. Repeat those three sentences to yourself as many times as it takes. Because that’s the truth. The American Medical Association formally recognized alcoholism as a disease way back in 1956 and finally got around to officially recognizing the truth about addiction, too, in 1987. In 2011 the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) joined the AMA, further refining the definition of addiction as a chronic brain disorder, not a behavior problem. 

Getting Help for Yourself 

Adopting a mindset that says you have an illness, it is not your fault and you deserve help is essential here. We’ve established that. But where do you go from there? The next piece of the equation is education and advocacy. All that means is you want to learn as much as you can about your illness and the help available and you want to stand up for yourself and ask for what you need. Educating yourself does not mean self-diagnosis. Only a professional can diagnose a specific disorder. But you know what your symptoms are and you likely know if you have a problem with drinking or drugs. The more specifics veterans with mental illness can give a doctor, psychiatrist or counselor, the better. Many people find keeping a journal helpful. 

At minimum, if you can keep some record of your symptoms, this can be helpful in diagnosis. For example, if you get anxious when you hear loud noises and the symptoms get worse at night. Or if you drink primarily to relieve your social anxiety when you need to be around people, but you “didn’t used to be this way”. These are the types of details a therapist needs to know to best help veterans with mental illness. It’s also useful to be able to relate specific experiences. Particularly when it comes to trauma disorders, knowing the what, who and when are crucial to getting effective PTSD care. If you have medical coverage through the VA and CCN, don’t hesitate to use these resources. Following the 2018 Mission Act, the VA is required to provide you with referrals to private treatment and to cover it, if they can’t provide you with the right kind of care in a reasonable time frame. The VA’s Community Care Network (CCN) is the system they use to coordinate these referrals to outside care providers. 

Making Use of What’s Available

Remember that the VA can help, but it isn’t the only resource veterans with mental illness or addiction have. Support groups and 12-step fellowships like AA or NA have helped millions of people cope with adversity, stay hopeful or to overcome addiction. Advocacy groups like The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) can be extremely helpful to you whether you rely on the VA for support or have private insurance, or no coverage at all. They provide a wealth of information, referrals, advice and support and it’s free of charge.

If you have private medical insurance, then by law, you must have coverage for mental health and substance abuse. Harmony Healing Center can perform a confidential insurance verification for you and let you know exactly what your insurance covers in terms of mental health or substance abuse treatment. This doesn’t obligate you to anything, it’s free of charge and it can help make your options a bit clearer. It may take resourcefulness and persistence for you to get the help you need, but you are worth it. Do this for yourself. You deserve it.

Some Key Things to Remember:
  • Mental illness is not your fault. Neither is addiction. No shame. No stigma.
  • You can get better and you deserve help, but you must ask for it and be persistent.  
  • Keep records of your symptoms and relevant memories. Be ready to tell your story. 
  • The VA can help, but it isn’t your only resource. Talk to people and look into support groups too. 
  • You are not alone. Whatever you are going through, there are people who understand and can help. 

Getting Help for an Addicted Vet or Veteran with Mental Illness 

Watching a person you care about stuck in a rut or spiraling downward can leave you feeling powerless and desperate. While we can’t directly control another person’s behavior, there are things we can do to help someone in a personal crisis. Finding help for a veteran with addiction or a mental health disorder like PTSD or depression can be a challenge, but it’s far from impossible. 

This challenge can be broken down into two basic parts.
  • The willingness of the person who needs help (and working on it, if necessary)
  • Getting a diagnosis and pursuing treatment and support.  

The first part is simple. Do they admit they have a mental health problem or addiction? Are they willing to accept help? How much willingness is there and what can you do to increase it?  It is important to remember that often, in the beginning the best thing you can do for someone is just listen. You want to be seen as available to help them, but not as someone who is going to badger or nag them (unless they ask you directly). You want to be a safe place for them. You can’t help if you’re just another source of anxiety or feelings of guilt. 

Comfort and Encourage, But Don’t Enable or Nag

Someone who is wrestling with anxiety attacks or depression or is addicted to pain medication is likely to feel both overwhelmed and powerless. They are also likely to fear the judgment of others. Simply letting that person know that you care and you are there to listen and really hear what they have to say without judging them harshly has more value than you can imagine. It can be lonely to be a vet with an addiction or a mental illness. Having even one person (or one more person) who is willing to listen and offer moral support really helps.

When we say don’t enable, what we mean is: Offer the person compassion, but don’t help them continue in the wrong direction just to make them feel better in the short term. Anything that encourages the wrong behavior or makes it easier could be considered enabling. A clear example would be giving cash to someone who is addicted or continuing to insulate someone from the consequences of their actions. It’s tricky to find the line, but the more you can learn about codependency, the better you will be able to to navigate this aspect of your relationship with the person you want to help. 

Eyes on the Prize

That second part (getting help) is where the change actually occurs, don’t forget that. Getting a diagnosis, treatment and support is the key. Everything you do should be directed in one way or another towards getting professional help for veterans with mental illness. Because there is only so much that you or any non-professional in a self-help group can do for them. So, let that person know you are willing to listen and lend a shoulder to lean on, just never forget it takes action to solve a problem.

Learning how to manage a mental health disorder or recover from addiction is no different. It takes action. Let that person know you are there to help them get treatment. Whatever that means to you. It could mean a ride to outpatient counseling sessions at the VA or to an AA or NA meeting. It may mean watering plants or watching a pet while they go for inpatient treatment. It may be as simple as helping them marshal their resources. When you’re in crisis, just having a person who can see the bigger picture and write down a simple plan on paper or send you reminders can be a Godsend. 

This is Important: Don’t Lose Yourself 

Another very important point that must not get lost in the mix here is that veterans with mental illness are not the only ones who suffer when addiction or a disorder enters their lives. The family members and loved ones of veterans are often directly impacted and even suffer the same problems themselves as a result. In our view, there isn’t nearly enough awareness about this issue. If you are the loved one or family member of a veteran with mental illness or addiction, do not lose sight of your own needs.

It’s easy to become codependent, or simply distracted by trying to solve a crisis for someone else that you forget about your own place in the equation. Take note of the effect that all of this has on you. Are you experiencing any symptoms of PTSD, depression or anxiety? Have you turned to drugs or alcohol for relief regularly? We can’t help anyone else fully if we cannot help ourselves. It is not selfish to care about and address your own needs. It’s smart. Self-love and self-care are about self-preservation. They are necessary to successful living and happiness and you deserve both.

Turn it Around: Help for Veterans with Mental Illness and Addiction

Too many veterans with mental illness or addiction in the U.S. aren’t getting the help they need. Vets are more prone to mental health problems like addiction for a number of reasons Over 20 years of troop deployments, including reservists heading into hot zones for 24 months at a time have definitely played a part. Vietnam era veterans face challenges too along with their younger fellows. The bottom line is we have tens of thousands of veterans with mental illness ranging from PTSD and anxiety to depression and alcohol or drug addiction.

Whatever we can do as a society to help the people who put it all on the line to serve their country, we need to do it. Part of that begins with awareness. Helping veterans with mental illness or addiction feel seen and heard. Letting them know that it’s safe to ask for help and that it will be there for them is the bare minimum. Empowering vets suffering with addiction or other mental disorders to ask for and accept help is a noble cause if ever there was one. If we’re going to help, we need to know what is stopping vets from getting help. Here are some ideas:   

Why Veterans with Mental Illnesses Sometimes Don’t Get Help:
  • Stigma associated with addiction, depression, PTSD and mental health needs.
  • Lack of information about their options for substance abuse treatment. 
  • Delays and postponement of treatment services from the VA. 
  • Inadequate treatment provided by the Veterans Administration. 
  • A sense of shame or pride prevents them from asking for help. 
  • Chronic pain or anxiety that only seems to respond to narcotic meds.
  • Concerns about letting people down or falling short of responsibilities.

Changing the way we talk about addiction and mental illness is a start. So is making yourself a “safe place” for a friend or loved one to open up without fear of judgment. If you are a veteran with mental illness or addiction or you know someone who is, Harmony Healing Center would like to help. Call us at (888) 978-1697 and we will be happy to explain the options for treatment and what we can do to help you or your loved one recover and life a full and rewarding life.