I talk a lot about changing the way we think about veteran mental health. When I do, I get a variety of responses. These include stigma, “Veterans just don’t want to talk about mental health. They think it makes them weak.” They include dismissal, “Veterans don’t need therapy, they just need to get on with their lives.” Sometimes, I hear, “but why Veteran mental health? Why not mental health in general? You know that’s a problem for everyone.” When talking about veteran suicide, others tell me that I shouldn’t just try to help veterans, but help everyone.
Well, I can tell you, I don’t know everyone, but I do know veterans. I may have a lot of tattoos on my chest, but none of them are a shield with an S on it; I’m not Superman. When I was in the military, I would tell my Soldiers: I’m not trying to change the Army, I’m just trying to clean up my corner of it.
Much of what you’ll read or listen to on this website can and does apply to mental health in general. Our capacity for stress. The need for awareness. The methods used to intervene when a veteran is considering taking their own life are the same methods that we should use for anybody. The difference is that veterans experienced a lifestyle that is increasingly unique in modern society, and immersion in that lifestyle has come with certain psychological advantages and challenges that are also unique.
Solutions for Veteran Mental Health Can Be Applied Elsewhere
The fact that the military is a microcosm of society means that solutions that work for the veteran population could work for the population at large. This goes for employment, homelessness, and yes, mental health. The stigma against seeking mental health treatment is strong in veterans. If we figure out how to overcome the stigma in our nation’s service members, then perhaps that message and method can be applied in other areas. First responders. At-risk youth. Domestic violence survivors. Yes, each of these are important and we should address them all; if we wait for one solution to apply to all of them, however, we will be waiting a very long time.
The Message Must Be Appropriate for the Audience
In my observation, universal solutions simply don’t make the impact that they once had. Our society has become so individualized that we can tailor our education, our employment, and our consumer behavior to fit our needs and desires. The concept of market segmentation, in which we are grouped according common needs and interests, leads to messages that are increasingly tailored to a particular audience. The way we communicate today lends itself to this segmentation. If I wanted to reach an audience of military spouses that have children between the ages of eight and eleven within a radius of a certain zip code, I could do that.
The days of a single message for all people are long gone. We need a message, and a way of spreading that message, that is specific to the audience. While the interventions that are effective for veterans are also effective for at-risk youth, the way that we present those interventions are not. The ability to adapt our message to an audience is necessary when we are trying to sell books or shoes; it’s also necessary when we’re trying to sell an idea like utilization of mental health services.
The Mental Health Needs for Veterans are Unique
No matter which way we look at it, this is true. Certainly, trauma is trauma. Any event that threatens our lives or sexual violence to us or a close loved one is traumatic. Traumatic Brain Injury is not isolated only to the military. Colorado has become a leader in brain injury research; this is due to the frequency of head injuries as part of skiing and snowboarding accidents. What is unique is not the impact of these events; it’s the source. Someone who experiences traumatic stress reaction from a vehicle accident or a natural disaster is needs support, certainly. That person is not also having to contend with Moral Injury. Or having to figure out how to meet their needs after leaving the military. The repeated stress of multiple deployments and the strain that it has on the family.
This, of course, is also true for other populations. The system that supports at-risk youth can be as challenging to navigate for them as the Department of Veterans Affairs is for veterans. The legal system for domestic abuse survivors or the support system for victims of human trafficking have their own challenges. The argument is not that we should focus on veterans exclusively; it’s that we should tailor our message and method of delivery to each population, according to their needs.
The Current Message is Not As Effective as it Could Be
Conduct an online search for “veteran mental health” and you will likely get a majority of responses that has to do with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. There is an increasing awareness that veteran mental health goes beyond just PTSD and TBI, and many in the mental health community are talking about it. The challenge is that the non-clinical aspects of veteran mental health, such as meaning and purpose, moral injury, and needs fulfillment, are not as prevalent in the conversation. If we are going to talk about veteran mental health, then we need to talk about all aspects of it, not just PTSD or TBI. Focusing on these areas alone leads to a less than effective message.
I am all for changing the way that we think about mental health in our nation. I absolutely support anyone trying to overcome the stigma associated with mental health treatment. Like I used to tell my troops, though, I’m not trying to change the world; I’m just trying to clean up my corner of it.
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!