Mental Health Stigma Remains Problem for Service Members

Silhouette of US marinePentagon efforts to reduce the stigma of mental health care remain inadequate, according to a report from the United States Government Accountability Office (GAO). The report follows at least six studies from 2007-2014 urging the Pentagon to reduce mental health stigma and improve treatment access. Despite this compelling data, GAO analysts say little has changed at the Pentagon.

Stigma of Mental Health Care Persists in Military

The GAO study involved 23 focus group interviews with military members who said their decision to seek counseling provoked stigma. The interviews occurred between June 2015 and April 2016, and tracked a pattern of shaming and stigmatization. At one installation, service members can only access the mental health clinic through a single elevator, referred to as the “elevator of shame,” virtually eliminating the possibility of privately seeking mental health care.

The report also pointed to subjective decision-making among commanders whose subordinates seek mental health care. Department of Defense policies continue to discriminate against service members who seek treatment, creating a disincentive for such treatment and sparking serious concerns about career consequences.

The report cited a 2014 RAND Corporation study that identified stigmatizing Pentagon policies. The Pentagon still has not addressed these policies. Despite the Secretary of Defense’s 2012 directive that mental health care should not undermine security clearances, service members continue to lose security clearances if they seek therapy.

Even when veterans do seek mental health care, their efforts may be thwarted. An Inspector General’s report found the Veteran Crisis Line may be failing soldiers. Some callers were put on hold, redirected to voicemail, or sent back to call centers. Some soldiers even say their calls have been disconnected.

A Mental Health Crisis in the Military

Mental health issues remain a concern among both active duty and retired military members. Suicides rose dramatically between 2005 and 2009, with 19.9 out of 100,000 service members killing themselves in 2014. The civilian suicide rate is lower, at 12.93 per 100,000.

A 2014 study published in JAMA Psychiatry found much higher rates of mental health diagnoses among soldiers than civilians. Nearly 25% of 5,500 non-deployed, active-duty Army soldiers had a mental health diagnosis, with 11% having two or more diagnoses. Almost half had a mental health diagnosis at the time of enlistment, but experiences during military service significantly increased the rate of mental health diagnoses. Posttraumatic stress (PTSD) was nearly 15 times more prevalent among soldiers than civilians.

How Mental Health Affects Military Careers

A 2011 survey of nearly 600,000 service members found 37% believed seeking mental health care would “probably” or “definitely” damage their career.

Soldiers experiencing PTSD and other mental health symptoms may also be less-than-honorably discharged. This can affect their ability to receive military benefits, including mental health treatment, and may even undermine their success in civilian careers. Though the military has faced increasing pressure to review these discharges and stop punishing soldiers who face mental health issues, veterans often struggle to change their less-than-honorable discharges. In 2013, the Army Board for Correction of Military Records, which reviews these discharges, ruled against veterans in 96% of cases involving PTSD.


  1. Klime, P. (2015, September 11). Panel: Stigma is obstacle to mental health care. Retrieved from
  2. Philipps, D. (2016, February 19). Veterans want past discharges to recognize post-traumatic stress. Retrieved from
  3. Vedder, T. (2016, May 5). VA crisis line failure leaves local vet teetering on the brink, gun in hand. Retrieved from
  4. Willingham, V. (2014, March 4). Study: Rates of many mental health disorders much higher in soldiers than in civilians. Retrieved from
  5. Zoroya, G. (2016, May 5). Pentagon perpetuates stigma of mental health counseling, study says. Retrieved from

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  • Savahnnah

    May 10th, 2016 at 1:56 PM

    It is so disappointing to think that the men and women who so bravely defend our country are still being subjected to this kind of treatment and being made to feel that they are inferior if they need some help with any mental health issue. I think that any of us no matter who we are should never be denied basic health care and should not have to live in fear of being discriminated against and yet we are doing this to the people who put their lives ion the line for us every single day. This is terribly wrong,.

  • Hailey

    May 10th, 2016 at 3:39 PM

    We know that this is a huge crisis for members of the military, and so if you and I know this then you have to think that the higher ups in the military know this.’So what would they rather see happen
    people who need help actually seeking it out and having help available to them? Or ignoring it and letting the problem get worse and worse on a daily basis?
    that one thing right there just makes absolutely no sense to me. If you know that there is a problem then you address it and try to fix it, not just ignore it and hope for the best.

  • joey

    May 11th, 2016 at 11:19 AM

    Is it even possible to seek help outside of the system especially if you are worried about what this could do to your career?

  • Collin

    May 11th, 2016 at 3:57 PM

    @ joey, I guess that they could but the whole point here is that they should never even have to consider doing that. They have healthcare accessibility and they should not have to worry that just because this is a mental health related issue that they cannot get the treatment that they need, nor should they have to worry about what reporting this will do to them as they try to advance through the military. The real issue should be that we should not feel like it is ok to discriminate against someone because they have a mental health illness, and they should not be made to feel like this is going to come back to haunt them if they ever try to receive treatment for it.

  • jay

    May 12th, 2016 at 10:32 AM

    We care so much about where people go to use the bathroom but very little for active duty and veteran health care and well being. Brilliant.

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