Military Makes Case Against ‘Mental Health’ Stigma

Late last week the Pentagon announced that the term “mental health” will no longer be employed by Army commands. Instead, all policies, regulations and documents will use the phrase “behavioral health services,” in an Army-wide effort to reduce the stigma for soldiers seeking mental health support. The change is part of a larger military campaign to promote health, reduce risk and prevent suicide. The campaign reflects a wider recognition that mental healthcare is an issue that impacts everyone – no matter the culture, occupation or faith tradition – and that ignoring it only adds to the damage.

In a 2004 American Psychologist article, Patrick Corrigan noted that the “mental illness” label actually prevents people from both finding help and sticking with it. He noted that the stigma impedes treatment participation by decreasing self esteem and cheating them out of social opportunities. The new Pentagon initiatives appear to take aim at both concerns, by making it easier for soldiers to get support discretely, and increasing behavioral health awareness among commanders and soldiers at all levels. For example, behavioral health services now will be housed in hospitals, rather than in separate buildings where it may have been obvious that soldiers are seeking mental health assistance. A new military website – RealWarriors.net – features stories of real service members who have sought treatment while still maintaining successful careers.

The National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) points out that one in five people worldwide suffer a mental or neurological disorder at some point during their lives, and yet nearly two-thirds of people with a known mental illness never seek help from a professional. NAMI contends that discrimination and stigma are to blame for these statistics, adding that individual action is required to change public attitudes. Specifically, NAMI invites advocates to protest prejudice and stereotypes in the media while also praising accurate information and depictions that improve public understanding of mental illness.

The Mayo Clinic argues that our modern “celebrity” culture is helping spread the word about mental health and destigmatize those seeking help. “Celebrities who openly discuss their mental illnesses or write books about their experiences increase public awareness and help make it easier for others to reveal their struggles with mental illness,” the Clinic said in a 2005 white paper. The paper references Lorraine Bracco (depression), Jane Pauley (bipolar disorder), Mike Wallace (depression), and Brooke Shields (postpartum depression).

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