Improving Shift in Mental Health Stigma May Contribute to Reduced Number of Suicides

Mental Health Stigma

The suicide rate among active duty service members continues to slowly decrease from 2012—the worst recorded year for service member suicides, where a reported 321 individuals took their own lives. The Defense Suicide Prevention Office reports fluctuations between the number of deaths in each branch, but the question remains the same across all branches: what can be done to eliminate suicide in the military?

The impact of mental health efforts may have contributed to the initial decrease since 2012, Dr. Ingrid Herrera-Yee, the Founder and President of Military Spouse Behavioral Health Clinicians, explains.

“When the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan began, there wasn't as much support from military leadership, and there weren't as many support systems as there are today,” she said. “Now, there are even non-profits that educate and provide resources to those service members who are struggling.” 

There’s no single known cause for suicide. One of the main obstacles many service members encounter is the stigma involved with seeking mental health services while serving their country. Many refuse to seek help because they believe it would make them appear weak, or worse, jeopardize their career. Others are concerned about having to take psychiatric medications and don’t want to compromise their security clearance. Whatever the reason, for most, the solution to avoid issues and stigmas is to keep symptoms a secret—a struggle that can affect the entire military family.

Army spouse, Cara, has experienced this first-hand. “My husband was reeling. He was drinking every night, started over-sleeping and being late to work. He’s gotten in more trouble at work the last 6 months than he has in the last 10 years! I want him to get help, but if I go to his command, will they take him away? What if they kick him out? I don’t want to be the reason he gets kicked out of the career he loves,” she said.

But Dr. Herrera-Yee has seen a improving shift in the mental health stigma, and she attributes a large portion of this to military leadership. “The stigma around seeking help has been improving steadily. There are numerous examples of leaders talking about their own psychological health, seeking help, and the positive effects of acting early,” she says.

Dr. Herrera-Yee says there are still some toxic leaders within the ranks that don’t always promote mental health efforts, but they are few and far between these days. With commanders having witnessed the toll mental health issues have on military readiness, they have started becoming more invested in the mental wellbeing of their troops.

“There are so many leaders stepping up to the plate, and battle buddies supporting their brothers and sisters in arms,” Herrera-Yee said.

The landscape on the emotional battle field is still being fought as the military and non-profits alike join the fight to stomp out the mental health stigma. September is Suicide Awareness Month, and the topic of mental health is front and center in this discussion. Herrera-Yee encourages leaders to continue being open and honest about allowing service members to seek the help that they need.

Posted September 7, 2017

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