Stigma and Veterans, Active-Duty Military and Their Families

Apr 8, 2021

If you feel you are in crisis – call the Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 and Press 1. Reach the Veterans Crisis Line online chat or send a text message to the Veterans Crisis Line at 838255. The Veterans Crisis Line provides free, confidential support 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.

Twenty years. That’s how much time passed before Patrick Welch, PhD., U.S. Marine Corps (retired), acknowledged that he needed help with his mental health. Carrying the weight of trauma and survivor’s guilt along with the daily pressures of life became too much of a burden.

“I had to maintain a persona of being the tough Marine who always had his act together,” he said.  “Each day I would put on my armor, business suit and face mask, and go face the world with strength and confidence. When I got home and took off the heavy suit of armor I would collapse because I had survived another day,” Welch said.

Three common mental health concerns for Veterans and active-duty service members are post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and traumatic brain injury (TBI).

Some statistics:

  • In 2017, Veterans accounted for 13.5% of all deaths by suicide among U.S. adults and constituted 7.9% of the US adult population.
  • Approximately 17 Veteran suicides occur daily. Eleven out of the 17 are not linked with any VA treatment.
  • 30 percent of active duty and reserve military personnel deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan have a mental health condition requiring treatment – approximately 730,000 men and women, with many experiencing PTSD and major depression.

Stigma may cause Veterans and active-duty military to experience shame, hopelessness, embarrassment, isolation, and unfair treatment or discrimination. They may also internalize the stigma and start to believe that there is something wrong with them because of their mental illness. Veterans carry this additional burden on top of the challenges they already face.

According to Cathleen Larson, contract coordinator with the Erie County Department of Mental Health (ECDMH) and an active member of the Community Veteran’s Engagement Board (CVEB), veterans are less likely to seek help because of stigma. Many veterans do not seek out treatment, services or even support for what they are going through. They worry that disclosing mental illness or seeking out mental health treatment will negatively impact their military careers and worry about how others in the military will view them.

“Military culture values teamwork, toughness and self-reliance,” Larson said. “This can lead to Veterans feeling like they must handle and cope with their struggles and difficult emotions on their own and not get outside help. These same values are what contributes to the stigma.

“Veterans worry that they may be perceived as weak, that their peers or leaders can’t rely on them, that they’ll be treated differently, or blamed for the problem,” she said.

Katie Coric, LCSW, suicide prevention coordinator and emergency services program manager for the VA Western New York Healthcare System, works to connect veterans to resources. In her role, she encourages individuals to come in before there is a mental health crisis.

“They’ve had to deal with so many things, such as combat. Many find it hard to justify seeking help since they dealt with so many things during their service, they feel they should be able to deal with their own mental health struggles,” Coric said.

Coric emphasized that there is hope for veterans and there are many wonderful and effective treatment resources for Veterans both at the VA and in the community.

“I’ve seen countless Veterans get the mental health treatment and support that they need and make big changes to improve their mental health and quality of life. Veterans can call the VA Western New York healthcare system to be linked with treatment or call or text the Veterans Crisis Line (838255),” Coric said.

Family and Peer Support

Family members and friends often struggle to encourage Veterans they care about to seek treatment and they may experience stigma themselves.

Friends and family can support their loved ones by listening without judgment and being supportive and compassionate. They can learn about mental illness and talk about their family member’s diagnosis and treatment.

Dr. Welch and other Veterans encourage fellow Veterans to reach out for help. There are numerous resources and programs to help individuals with mental health issues.

Western New York Heroes Operation B.O.O.T.S. brings Veterans and their families together monthly in a casual, non-clinical, non-threatening, setting in safe, fun environments.

For families, Operation COM (Children of the Military) is a free program offered by Mental Health Advocates of WNY in partnership with the Veterans One Stop Center of WNY. The mission of the Operation COM program is to strengthen military family relationships in Western New York using creative activities, peer support, and family-centric activities.

“If exposing my story of pain and suffering can help one other person seek help, then dropping that persona of being the tough Marine is worth it,” Dr. Welch said.

Call VA today


Call this number for information on VA care, benefits, and services or to speak to a live agent for assistance.


COMPEERCORPS Veterans Program
(716) 883-3331

Veterans One-Stop
(716) 898-0110

Western New York Heroes
[email protected]

Operation COM – Mental Health Advocates of WNY:
Call 716-886-1242 x347
Contact Bridget McNally at [email protected]

Community Veterans Engagement Board of WNY

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