When Chris Hill was honorably discharged from the U.S. Marine Corps in 1982, he made sure to remove the medical records in his permanent file about his visits to a psychiatrist. Hill, who was experiencing severe anxiety attacks, was afraid to be labeled as a veteran with psychiatric problems.

“I was embarrassed about it at the time,” says Hill, who now works as a mental health counselor for the Jefferson Center for Mental Health in Wheat Ridge, CO. “There was a stigma in my own mind about it being bad to get psychiatric help. As a Marine, I didn’t want to appear weak.”

Research shows that Hill’s trepidation about receiving psychiatric care is not unique among members of the Armed Forces. A 2004 study of 6,000 military men and women involved in ground combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan found that of those whose responses indicated a mental health problem, only 23 to 40 percent sought psychiatric help. Many who did not seek treatment cited fear of being stigmatized as a reason.

For veterans who return home with physical and mental scars, their wounds can present particular challenges for years to come. The wars overseas rarely make front page news these days, but the wars still loom large for families left behind during tours of duty and dealing with the war’s aftermath in the form of veterans returning with posttraumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression and substance abuse.

Nearly 300,000 veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from either posttraumatic stress or depression, according to a recent study by the RAND Corporation. The Department of Veterans Affairs says mental health is the second largest area of illness for veterans of these wars.

Some of these troubled veterans seek help at Pecan Valley MHMR. Soon, more veterans may be able to receive counseling from community-based organizations. On Oct. 10, President Bush signed “The Veterans Mental Health and Other Care Improvements Act of 2008” into law. The new law directs the Veterans Administration (VA) to contract with community-based healthcare organization to provide mental health services in rural areas in which access to VA services is inadequate.

Everyone has a role to play to help veterans overcome the stigma of

mental illness. A few easy ways to help veterans overcome the stigma of mental illness include:

• Talk about your family’s experiences with mental illnesses and addictions as you would about other medical conditions. Mental illnesses and addictions need to come fully out of the closet.

• Decide to become literate about mental illnesses and addictions.

Read and ask questions about these conditions and look for courses on mental health literacy in your community.

• Support veterans groups and your local mental health center’s efforts to make mental health and addictions treatment available in every community.

We all need to be sensitive to the trauma and mental anguish that

returning veterans may be experiencing. Whether veteran, family member, friend, co-worker or simply a concerned citizen, we all need to make sure we continue to fight the stigma attached to seeking mental health treatment. 

Help can be found at Pecan Valley MHMR in Erath, Johnson, Hood, Palo Pinto, Parker and Somervell counties. For more information, visit www.pvmhmr.org.