Ten Reasons for Veterans (Not) To Avoid Mental Health Counseling

Marines use a map to plan their next move during an urban terrain exercise with Spanish soldiers in Alicante, Spain, March 30, 2017. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Jessika Braden

No way, pal. You won’t catch me going to the therapist. I’m going to avoid that crap so hard that it hurts. I’m so focused on holding it together that I don’t have time to yap at someone who’s only going to judge me anyway. No thanks, I’ll handle it in my own way.

How many times have you heard that? How many times have you said that? The maximum effective range of an excuse is zero meters, as one of my leaders used to say. These reasons for avoiding mental health counseling are just that: excuses. They are effective in keeping us stuck in a crap way of thinking and living, but they are certainly not effective in helping us live the peaceful post-military life we want. Here are ten reasons for avoiding mental health counseling that I’ve heard.

It Doesn’t Help

This goes in the category of “it’s going to stay this way forever.” One of the main reasons I hear from veterans is that they don’t understand how talking to a mental health professional can actually help them come to terms with what they experienced. The frustrating thing for us mental health professionals: we know it works. We see it every day. We know veterans whose lives have been changed, very much for the better, once they started talking to a mental health counselor and addressing their thoughts, behaivors, and emotions. It does work, you just have to try.

I Can’t Talk To Them if They Haven’t Been There

This is a big one. “If they’re not a veteran,” or even some more specific variation of that…a combat veteran, a combat arms veteran, a veteran from the same era/service/occupational specialty as me…then “they don’t get it.” As a combat veteran, sure, there is a bit more of a fast track to trust with my clients. That doesn’t mean that you have to have served to be able to help someone who has served. First, there’s simply not enough combat veterans in the clinical mental health field to meet the need. Second, a licensed mental health professional has a level of training and expertise to address mental health concerns, and if they’re working with veterans, then hopefully they’ve done some work around understanding the military and veteran culture.

If you’re unsure, then ask: do you work with a lot of veterans? If they say, “I’m just starting out, and I don’t really know that much about veterans,” then maybe you want to find someone else. Sort of like when you take your car to the shop: “do you know much about Jeeps?” If they say, “I’m just starting out, I don’t really work on them that much” you can rest assured that I’m not leaving my Jeep there. That does not mean that’s the case with all mechanics, though.

I’ll Lose My _________ (guns, security clearance, etc)

“If I go to therapy, I’ll lose my security clearance” or “they’ll take my guns away from me.” Not true, but you have to believe it’s not true before you try it out. Going to see a therapist doesn’t mean you won’t be allowed to own a gun. I see veterans all the time, and they are able to hunt, go to the range, shoot skeet, all the rest of it. And security clearances? In 2016, the Director of National Intelligence implemented a change to the infamous “Question 21” on the SF 86. The changes shift the focus from whether or not the applicant sought treatment, to whether or not a diagnosed mental health condition impacts their judgement, reliability, or trustworthiness. Even before that, though, seeking mental health counseling wasn’t a disqualifying factor. After each of my first two deployments, my wife and I went to marriage counseling. Through Army One Source, by the way. That was in 2008 and 2010…and I applied for and was granted a TS/SCI in 2012. It didn’t hold me back, and it shouldn’t hold you back.

What’s In The Past is In The Past

This is the “locked duffel bag” argument. What’s in the past is in the past, it stays in the past, and will always remain in the past. Until it doesn’t. That’s the sneaky part about unresolved trauma or mental knots: they crop up in the present like yesterday’s spicy food. We may have all of the stuff that bothered us locked away in a dark room of our mind, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to stay there. Ignoring it only makes it build up, and ultimately potentially overwhelm us. Or come out at weird times, when we don’t want it to. Ignoring the warning light on the car doesn’t make the problem go away, and ignoring the warning signs of unresolved pain doesn’t make the problem go away either.

All They’re Going to Do is Medicate Me

This is another common misconception. I’ve been doing this for years, and I’ve not medicated anyone. I’m not allowed to as a Masters level mental health counselor; that’s Psychiatrists and Psychiatric Nurse Practitioners. Could medications help? Sure, maybe, depending on what you’re dealing with. Are they always the answer? Not really, especially when it comes to aspects of veteran mental health that have no medication interventions, such as a lack of purpose and meaning, moral injury, needs fulfillment, or relationship challenges. There is no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to mental health. Assuming that you don’t like the one thing you think they’re going to do before you see if they’re going to do it is rejecting the answer before you even asked the question. Check it out and see.

I’m Doing Just Fine Without It

Are you? Really? You might be, but then again, you might be drinking a bit too much. Or yelling too much. Or getting too angry at those around you over small things, like perceived disrespect. There was a need to leave the boots at the door when we were in the military, and there is certainly a need to leave the boots at the door when we leave the military. If you find your sleep wrecked by nightmares, or your days filled with anxiety or depression, are you really doing just fine without it? You might not be telling yourself the whole truth.

My Buddies Are Doing Just Fine Without It

And this one goes along with that one…are they really? Being vulnerable is not something that veterans are comfortable with. We want to show ourselves as capable, reliable. If we don’t show what’s going on behind the curtain to our buddies, what makes us think that they’re going to show their reality to us? It’s even worse with social media. We see our friends and their happy lives, eating great food, and going to interesting places…but it’s been said that social media is like comparing our lives to someone else’s highlight reel.

Going To Therapy is Admitting Weakness

This is a huge one. Probably should be up there near number one, if we were doing this in any kind of order. “If I go to a therapist, then it means I’m ______” and fill in the blank. Weak. A loser. Someone who can’t hack it. Undependable. Worthless. How negative are each of those statements? How would we feel if we heard our kid say that about themselves? A study on the perceptions of stigma in veterans asked a group of veterans to rate how they would feel about a particular statement, compared to how they would feel about their fellow veteran regarding the same statement. 44% of veterans thought that they would be perceived as weak for going to a mental health counselor; only 12% of veterans said that they would consider another veteran weak for doing the same thing. That’s a HUGE disconnect…and one that keeps us stuck in the suck.

I’ve Tried Asking For Help Before

This is a challenging one. Yes, it happens. You’ve gone to the VA, like they said you should, and you can’t get in to see someone for five weeks. Or you get sent to someone in the community, and they have no clue how to handle what’s going on with you. I’ve heard it all: therapists who start crying when they hear you explain what you went through, or argue about your politics. I once had someone once tell me that the therapist they saw would sit on the floor, legs crossed, with their eyes closed during the session. I get it! But I’m not them, they’re not me, and that’s not even someone who represents the mental health profession. We don’t stop at one mechanic when the car needs to be fixed, but we will absolutely stop at the first sign of someone who can’t help with mental stuff. As Air Force veteran Rhi Guzelian said on a recent podcast, a mental health professional relationship is as much personal as it is professional. Find someone you get along with, and avoid those that you don’t. It’s as simple as that.

There’s Nothing Wrong With Me

Similar to the “I’m doing just fine” argument, but different as well. I know that I’m not doing fine, I know I’m struggling, but what do you expect? Have you seen what I’ve gone through? There’s nothing wrong with me that a little ______ can’t fix. Fill in the blank again: booze, isolation, gym time, angry rant. In the meantime, after we keep applying these band-aids, the cracks keep getting bigger and bigger. “This too shall pass” may work in some cases, but definitely not the majority.

So there you have it; some of the excuses that I’ve heard for veterans avoiding mental health counseling. Any of them sound familiar? Any that I missed? Feel free to reach out on social media or reply in the comments below. Love to hear anything I forgot.

The Head Space and Timing Blog is supported by the Colorado Veterans Health and Wellness Agency, a 501(c)3 Nonprofit in Colorado Springs, Colorado. The goal of the CVHWA is to provide military culturally competent mental health counseling to veterans and their spouses, regardless of characterization of discharge, time of service, or era of service. Our vision is to assist veterans to identify and remove barriers to their mental, physical, emotional, and behavioral wellness. For questions or inquiries, contact us!

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Duane France
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Duane K. L. France is a combat veteran of both Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as a mental health counselor practicing in the state of Colorado. Do you want to join the conversation regarding veteran mental health? Share, like, and comment. Read Duane's previous posts and follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn. Keep the conversation about #veteranmentalhealth going.