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Stopping stigma for emotional wounds is start of mental health

Kelly L. Forys
U.S. Army Center for Health Promotion and Preventive Medicine

If you injure your arm while performing your duties, you go to the medical treatment facility to get help. A doctor assesses your wound, provides immediate treatment, instructs you on how to care for the wound and schedules a time for you to come back so that he can reassess how you are doing.

This is an accepted procedure for obtaining help for a physical injury.

However, seeking help for an emotional or mental wound, such as depression or post-traumatic stress disorder, is often met with stigma.

Especially during Army Suicide Prevention Week Sunday through Sept. 13, we need to ensure our response to other Soldiers, civilians or anyone who shows signs of mental or emotional pain will be one of encouraging them to get needed help, rather than perpetuating wrong or negative attitudes.

Stigma, which means “shame or disgrace,” has four components, according to the Mayo Clinic:

• Labeling someone with a condition.

• Stereotyping people who have that condition.

• Creating separation, devaluation of the person (us versus them) and loss of support.

• Discriminating because of their condition.

Why does this stigmatizing behavior exist and persist?

The answer is as complex as the mental health condition itself. Stigma is often caused by not truly knowing what a “mental health disorder” is. Often, an individual’s only experience with a mental condition comes from a movie or television show in which the mental condition was inaccurately portrayed.

Many feel a mental condition is different from a medical or physical condition. They assume those with a mental condition have brought it on themselves, the condition is “all in their head” or they are faking it to be excused from duty.

Due to lack of knowledge and understanding, people are scared to interact with someone with a mental health condition. So, they respond to that person in a defensive manner, which can involve teasing, ridicule, ostracizing and abuse. These negative behaviors indicate a lack of knowledge.

The truth is mental conditions are not scary. They result from a complex interaction among genetics, biology and the environment, which are the same contributing factors to many chronic medical and physical conditions.

Stigma against mental health conditions is harmful to everyone. Stigma can prevent an individual with a mental health condition from seeking help. This is very dangerous because — as with a physical health condition — when treatment is sought at the first signs of a mental health condition, the condition will respond better to treatment. Treatment will be quicker and the person will return to health and duty feeling stronger and more resilient than before.

Stigma also affects the health of a unit. The time and energy spent stigmatizing the person with the mental health condition would be better spent focusing on the mission and health needs of the unit. In addition, stigma causes a division among Soldiers, which impairs the ability to successfully complete a mission.

The procedure for treatment of a mental health condition is similar to the procedure for treating a wound described at the beginning of this article.

If a Soldier is feeling depressed or has symptoms of PTSD (flashbacks, nightmares, increased startle response, etc.), he or she should go to a behavioral health professional, such as a social worker, psychologist or psychiatrist. The health professional will assess the condition, provide immediate treatment in the form of talk therapy and/or medication, instruct the Soldier on how to care for the condition and schedule a time for a follow-up visit to reassess the condition.

Remember, the earlier the treatment, the quicker the recovery. Stop the stigma.

Encourage your friends and buddies to get help today. Some Web sources of information about mental health:

Battlemind, www.battlemind.army.mil.

Army Behavioral Health, www.behavioralhealth.army.mil.

Military One Source, www.militaryonesource.com.

Mayo Clinic, www.mayoclinic.com/health/mental-health/MH00076.