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GUEST COLUMN: Be aware of stigma that surrounds mental illness

By: Melissa Dashner
April 16, 2014 Updated: April 16, 2014 at 8:30 am
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Stigma. What is the stigma of mental health?

When we think of someone seeking mental health treatment, we think of him or her as weak, incompetent or even crazy. Why? Is it because someone needs help processing his or her thoughts or needs medication?

What do you do when you are upset with a situation in life? You talk to a friend or a family member about it. Isn't that treatment for your mental health?

What do you do when you are sick with a headache or a cold? You take medicine to help you through the day. The stigma of seeking mental health treatment has a negative connotation although we all seek mental health treatment in one form or another. We need to start working to change the negative image of mental health treatment for the betterment of our society.

Where do we start? Why not begin with the society that protects our being. The military. What is the stigma of the military? When we think of a soldier, we think of strength, resiliency, mental toughness and self-sufficiency. The characteristics of mental health treatment contradict the core identity of what a soldier is known to be. How can we, as a people, claim distress because of the pressures of our work, relocation or being a single parent, when in the military this is expected without resistance?

Resiliency and strength is the core of a soldier. To seek mental health treatment would receive criticism from his or her peers, fear of reprisal in job duties, security clearance and promotions as well as shame and distress in the soldier, which can lead to worsening symptoms of a mental illness.

About 2.5 million Americans in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard, and related Reserve and National Guard have been deployed in the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars according to Department of Defense data. In 2009, The Washington Post stated that more than half of the millions of soldiers who have deployed "struggle with physical or mental health problems stemming from their service." Surrounding us in a military town such as Colorado Springs, service members and veterans are our family members and friends.

When we have negative stereotypes toward mental illness, our family and friends who have protected our freedoms, suffer from our discrimination. Once soldiers have fought for our communities, they return, contribute to and affect our community. Policies and laws can continue to be implemented but until the stigma associated with mental illness changes, it will not matter.

Even healthy people can benefit from mental health treatment. Mental health is just as important as physical health. We need to change the way we see mental health so that soldiers will feel confident, not shameful, in seeking treatment for their mental health. Once we change the stigma for our soldiers who protect us, we will then have the freedom to work on the stigma associated with the rest of our society. It's OK for us to change.

Admitting that one needs help is not a sign of weakness but a show of courage and strength.

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Melissa Dashner is a veteran of the U.S. Army, Montana and Colorado National Guard and a University of Southern California graduate student.

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