What stigmas do you know that are still around? In case you are wondering, a stigma is a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person (per the google dictionary). But what exactly does that mean? Think of it like this; a person with a mental health illness is called dangerous or crazy or even incompetent; that person can also be mocked or called weak (or other things) for seeking help. Basically, stigma means stereotyping and, in my opinion, it is still everywhere.
Since the example I used was about mental health, let's start there. Do you know someone who has been diagnosed with a mental health illness? Are you supportive of and for that person? As a society, we look down upon those with a mental illness, yes, we are advocating and playing the game of being supportive, but are we really? Take the recent tragedy in Uvalde, TX. The media immediately went too, "he must have been suffering from a mental illness". Why is that the very first thing people jump too? To make ourselves feel better for what happened, so that the blame can be placed on the parent of that individual for not getting them help? What if that individual had absolutely no history of mental illness or showed absolutely no signs of a mental illness? Now we have just stereotyped an entire community and labeled them as bad people. As a society we put so much blame on a person's mental health, that those individuals who truly need help, are scared to get it. We can say all day that science and research has shown this or shown that, but in reality, we have no idea why people do the things they do. Maybe this individual was just evil, maybe he did suffer from an undiagnosed mental illness; there are so many maybes and what if's as to why someone does such evil things.
Switching to a different side of mental health for a moment, what about someone with social anxiety (for example)? We immediately label them as antisocial, or a loner. Maybe that individual never had the opportunity to socialize growing up and there for doesn't know how to properly adjust or cope to being in a crowded place. We are so quick to put inaccurate labels on everyone that we are doing more harm than good. By doing this, we are making it harder and more shameful for people to seek mental health help. The Army is no better, and in my opinion, its worse.
Story time: (a long one)
I have been in the Army for almost 17 combined years (wow, holy cow wow lol) and the mental health stigma is still there and stronger than ever, again, in my opinion. When I first joined, many moons ago, you had to have and maintain a strong mind, anything less than that, you were considered weak. So many people fought battles inside themselves to maintain that strong mind, and in turn, became bitter and angry. I could see them change; I could see myself change. My sons' father was trying to take him from me, coupled with feeling guilty for losing two of my battles and what happened to my best friend at the time, I wasn't ok. But I was in Kuwait, so I had to suck it up, it didn’t work. When I was finally able to come home (this is when my best friend was assaulted), I started seeing a counselor and was put into group therapy. Boy, was I ever shunned and made fun of, and constantly told I was weak along with every other demeaning thing you could imagine. I let the Army chapter me out, I felt like I didn’t have any choice and for about 45 days, I stayed in a tiny bedroom with a friend (or so I thought) with my son and all my belongings.
Then I joined the Guard, 14 years later, the mental health stigma is still here. I made some amazing friends and met my current love, so my time in the guard hasn’t all been bad; pulling out the positives is a good coping mechanism for me. Within my first few years in the Guard I was assaulted, by someone who I trusted, who was supposed to mentor me and who I considered a friend, our children played together regularly and were best friends! I didn’t report it the first time, because I didn’t want to be seen as weak minded, so I buried it down deep and kept going. When he tried to do it again, while my daughter's father was deployed, I finally did report it, and as I suspected, it went nowhere. I first reported it to a good friend who was trained and it died with him, then I emailed my mentor who, I still consider as my greatest mentor; she laid out my options and the processes for each type of reporting procedure. I told her in that email that I wanted to report it; it also died with her (I was actually heartbroken) . It took me becoming a sh*t-bag Soldier for anyone to take me seriously to finally report it. Sexual Assault and Harassment is a HUGE problem in the Military, but that’s a topic for a different time.
As my time in the Guard went on, I knew my mental health was declining, my daughter's father told me to get over it all, what my son’s father did to me and my first line leader, as he was tired of my bulls*t; then I found out he was talking to another woman and giving her money (these details will be in my memoir), I cheated; I'm not proud of myself, but neither of us were in a good place and it just wasn't working anymore (this is also around the time that I knew I really never truly loved him). My mentor left for a promotion and new position, and her replacement… let's just say, he made my life a living hell. I was called eye candy and my only job was to use my looks to greet the visitors who came into the office, he then attempted to assault me during training one summer, he would make comments about me to other male Soldiers, he would make bets with other male Soldiers to see who could sleep with who in the company (me included); I needed out of there. It took me threatening to go AWOL (absent without leave) in order for anyone to take me seriously to get me out of there. Why is it that good Soldiers, good people, have to become sh*t-bags in order to be taken seriously?!? Because that is the way of the military, suck it up and drive on or be forced out.
My mental health was so bad, and it kept getting worse, even when I got to my next duty station. That is when I started really going to counseling and every counselor I saw was "mission first and foremost!" Forget my mental health, all anyone cared about was making sure I was mission ready, because again, mental health was frowned upon; I was so bad that I changed my physical appearance . Finally, things started changing in the military and mental health was slowly starting to be taken seriously. When my best friend was killed by a drunk driver (by this time I had put on a lot more weight and changed my hair in order to look less like eye candy), I was put into an Intensive Outpatient Program, and it changed my life. I still struggled, a lot, but that program helped me learn tools and skills and also gave me hope that the stigma was changing. Boy was I wrong, it felt that wat at least. I applaud the Military for its efforts, and when taken seriously, that program is amazing, but it's not enough. The people, the leaders, the mentors are the problem. When your mental health is shunned and you are looked down upon, it doesn’t matter what programs are out there, Soldiers won't go, and we end up killing ourselves thinking that is our only solution.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-8255 https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/?utm_source=google&utm_medium=web&utm_campaign=onebox
I had to go to an outside counselor, someone not affiliated with the military to be taken seriously. And almost 4 years later, I am still with my counselor, and she is absolutely amazing. She has helped me grow and heal and I have become a better person because of the tools she has given me, I've become a better leader and, most importantly, I've become a better mother to my children. But and there is always a but, the military still has that stigma of "mental health means you are weak". Huge strides have been made, but that stigma is still there. We have more resources than ever, we are more encouraging to our Soldiers to utilize those resources, but as an organization, we sure as hell do not support them. As soon as we learn a Soldier has a mental health concern, we send them to a Behavioral Health specialist, they are given a profile, then 90% of the time, they are discharged. How is that helping the Soldier and that is only reenforcing the stigma of "mental health means you are weak"?! We encourage seeking help but we are still going to kick you out because your mental health issue means you can't serve in the military. Now, I will add that sometimes that is for the best, for the organization and the Soldier, but if a Soldier wants to stay in and serve their country, but needs even a little bit of help, we tell them they are not good enough and show them the door.
Sigh, this post is a lot longer than I had originally intended. This topic is near and dear to my heart and always sends me on a long-winded rant. Having to fight for my career and deal with having the stigma thrown in my face so many times, I advocate for mental health, and sexual harassment and assault response prevention (SHARP) every chance I get. I have come a long way, and have fought hard to get where I am. It has taken me longer than a lot of my "kids" to get here (my promotion), but they (my kids) have supported me, as I have supported them, and we continue to support each other. Maybe one day the mental health stigma will finally be gone, or at least less than what it is. Until that day, I will continue to fight for not only myself, but for others that are struggling because if there is one thing I've learned, we are not alone.
YOU ARE NOT ALONE.