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November is the month we celebrate veterans and express our gratitude for their service and sacrifice. They often face significant mental health challenges when they complete their service or return from deployment. Stigma may prevent them from sharing their struggles and seeking help.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, nearly one in five U.S. adults lives with a mental illness, which includes members of active military, their families and veterans. More than 1.7 million veterans received treatment in a VA mental health specialty program in 2018. Yet, many other veterans may not seek treatment due to the stigma of mental illness, not wanting to be viewed as weak or a burden to others.

According to Kathy Zunn, director of community integration at Veterans One-Stop Center of WNY, Inc., there are many assumptions of people that have served in the military. Many believe that every veteran has post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and is liable to snap at any time. The truth is that only 11-20% of veterans have this issue and most are able to manage their symptoms.

“As the nation becomes more informed on mental health, there appears to be a shift in the culture surrounding the stigma,” Zunn said. “This will hopefully lead to a decrease in barriers to service as people become more open to discussing their own personal journeys.”

Military families also experience stigma

Alyssa Vasquez, an employee at Veterans One-Stop, has experience as a veteran and family member. As a veteran, as well as a former military spouse, she believes that family members face two separate issues.

“The first issue is stigma associated with any mental health issue. Second, is their desire to selflessly support their service member or veteran,” Vaszquez said. “A lot of times, spouses or loved ones may feel like their needs aren’t as important or they may even feel the need to hide their struggles, and as a result are not able to seek treatment openly.”

What are ways to eliminate stigma for these family members? Providing resources, education and sharing the stories of other families with similar experiences can encourage people to seek help. Several organizational members of the Anti-Stigma Coalition work with veterans and military families to provide social opportunities and essential services.

Help for Military Families and Veterans

Zunn says there have been great strides made in collaborative efforts to be sure all of our military families receive the support and assistance they need. The Veterans One-Stop Center is able to assist with case management services and connect clients to many on-site service organizations that include several community partners that provide assistance in the areas of employment, financial counseling, housing services, benefits counseling, education benefits, and legal services.

The PFC Joseph P. Dwyer Peer Support Program allows veterans and family members an opportunity to connect with those that have shared the same experience as them. The goal of the program is to decrease isolation and create a community of support. The Vet Center of Buffalo provides mental health counseling services for Combat Veterans, Military Sexual Trauma (MST) survivors, and their family members. In addition, the Buffalo VA provides a host of services, both clinical and non-clinical for eligible Veterans.

Several other Anti-Stigma Coalition member organizations provide programs for military members and their families. WNYHeroes offers veterans and their families access to health and housing needs, while offering family care services through simple-yet-essential gestures such as delivering food, holiday gifts and school supplies to veterans’ children. Without a strong support system, many veterans and their families are at high risk for emotional, physical and social hardship, often resulting in issues like substance abuse, homelessness, chronic unemployment and familial breakdown.

When Community Veterans Engagement Board joined the Coalition, Patrick W. Welch said. “The stigma associated with seeking help can be detrimental to one’s military career and has further negative implications when moving to veteran’s status,” Welch said. “One of the critical missions of the CVEB is to proactively work on breaking down the stigma associated with mental illness that our society does not understand.”

The Community Veterans Engagement Board (CVEB) enables veterans, service members, military families, veteran advocates, community service providers, and stakeholders to have a collective voice in identifying their community goals and work to resolve gaps in service at the local level to improve service delivery for veterans, military families, caregivers, and survivors.

Resources for Veterans:

Veterans Crisis Hotline
1-800-273-8255, Press 1

Crisis Services 24-Hour Hotline
716-834-3131

Veterans One-Stop Center of WNY
716-898-0110 & www.vocwny.org

Common Mental Health Concerns

According to NAMI, there are three primary mental health concerns that individuals may encounter serving in the military.

  • Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The rate of PTSD may be up to 15 times higher in active duty service members compared to civilians.
  • Depression. Five times higher in active duty service members compared to civilians.
  • Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). Symptoms can include headaches, fatigue or drowsiness, memory problems and mood changes and mood swings.