Mental illness in the military

A couple of months ago I wrote about mental health stigma in the profession of aircraft pilots and how health policies likely lead many pilots not to seek adequate treatment for mental health problems.

Since then, results were published of a study into mental health awareness and treatment among those in another profession – the Canadian military. This was the first study to examine the mental health of active military members over a one year period and more than 8,000 participated.

Results revealed many of our troops are reluctant to seek help for mental illness- showing more than half of military members with a mental disorder do not use any of the mental health services available to them.

More than 1,200 soldiers who participated in the study met criteria for at least one mental illness in the past year. Most common were depression, alcohol dependence and social phobia. Other illnesses including post traumatic stress were also common.

Several barriers to treatment were identified by researchers in this study. Most common is a failure to acknowledge any need for mental health services and a mistrust of military administrative health and social services. Other barriers include the belief a condition is temporary or an inability to identify a problem as a mental illness.

Not only do these barriers prevent military members from getting help they need to maintain healthy, happy lives, but when psychiatric disorders are left untreated it can often lead to an inability to continue serving effectively.

According to researchers, mental health disorders are associated with high rates of attrition in Canada’s military – and this costs the military a lot in both dollars and lost skills.

As in most areas of our society, what is needed is more education and awareness about mental health issues to fight the continuing stigma surrounding them. When people are more aware of the reality, symptoms, prevalence and biological basis of mental illness, they are more likely to recognize a problem when it occurs and seek help.

Aside from improved education and awareness campaigns, Canada’s military must make whatever changes are necessary in its health delivery systems to gain the trust of military members when it comes to mental health issues.

If members seek appropriate care when dealing with a mental illness, many would return to health and normal functioning – and would likely also experience an improved ability to carry out their work serving our country.

Much publicity has surrounded the incidence of post traumatic stress among military members who have served in areas of conflict and it seems military officials and members are more aware of this particular illness and available help than they were a few years ago.

I commend this start toward de-stigmatizing mental illness in our military – and hope it marks the beginning of a much broader campaign to address all mental health issues among our troops.


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