Why is the Department of Defense Tacitly Discouraging Veterans’ Recovery?

This post is part of the Mental Health Monday series, in which iustitia examines one aspect of the intersections between mental health and the law. You can find previous posts here

The stigma around discussing mental health in the U.S. military is no secret, which is an ironic development considering that the modern trauma healing model was largely developed as a result of U.S. veterans returning from foreign wars with post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. Despite great efforts by the Veterans’ Administration and veteran-led non-profits to provide mental health care for veterans, the stigma remains in insidious ways. The implicit encouragement of veterans to remain mum about mental illnesses is particularly troubling when one considers that the rate of mental illnesses among veterans is more than double that of average Americans. So, why is the Department of Defense tacitly promoting a culture of silence around mental health counseling and disadvantaging those who seek counseling in promotions and security clearances?

Though the military is waging a “war” on silence around mental health, veterans say that some policies in the Department of Defense show otherwise. Through hiring practices, the military infrastructure discriminates against servicemembers who seek counseling for PTSD, depression or other mental illnesses. This can lead to servicemembers and veterans either hiding the fact that they have sought counseling or living without treatment. Junior servicemembers then will not be aware that they can advance their careers even if they have sought counseling, contributing to a culture of silence and/or continued struggles with mental illness.

A study by the Government Accountability Office recently found that security clearances and jobs are more difficult to obtain for individuals who receive mental health care. Mental illnesses among servicemembers are not limited to those serving in direct combat roles. As the U.S. military has increasingly relied on drones to wage wars across the Middle East, South Asia, and Africa, drone pilots are exhibiting post-traumatic stress disorder. Trained to wage wars of questionable legality via remote control, drone pilots are quitting in record numbers.

With record high suicide levels among former servicemembers—nearly six points higher than the national rate—the difficulties obtaining civilian jobs, and the high levels of homelessness, the Pentagon is facing simultaneous crises. The crisis around mental illnesses and the stigma of discussing them may be of its own making.

To its credit, the Pentagon has acknowledged the accuracy of the survey and has continued its commitment to address mental health issues openly by quadrupling mental health programs. However, nearly nine years after the Department of Defense publicly acknowledged the need for combatting the stigma, the needle has moved far too slowly. By discriminating in hiring and security clearances for those who seek counseling, the military sends the message that keeping one’s trauma under wraps is the best way to advance one’s career. Trauma, however, does not go away with time. Rather, it can be exacerbated without intervention. Instead of forcing servicemembers and veterans into silence, the Pentagon should be taking any and all measures to dismantle the stigma around mental illnesses and create incentives for individuals who seek necessary services.