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Debunking the myths

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Debunking the myths

There are a lot of myths about serving members’ and veterans’ mental health. Let’s try and separate fact from fiction.

Fact: Physical and mental health are closely related, and each one can have an effect on the other. Having a mental health problem can mean you stop taking care of yourself; you might not eat enough, not get enough sleep, stop exercising, and drink too much. All of these things will have an effect on your physical health. On the other hand, sometimes a mental health problem can develop in response to a physical condition. For example, if you’re injured, you might get depressed about being stuck at home all day and losing your independence.


Fact: PTSD might get a lot of attention, but it’s only one of a whole range of mental health problems that affect serving members and veterans. Alcohol and drug related problems, depression, and anxiety, are also common, and in many cases affect more veterans than PTSD does. For example, alcohol problems are more than twice as common as PTSD in Vietnam veterans. [1]Suffering from more than one disorder at a time is also common; two thirds of serving members with a mood disorder also suffer from an anxiety or alcohol use disorder. [2]All these disorders, and other problems with things like anger or sleep can have a significant effect on serving members and veterans, their families and the wider community.


Fact: In many cases, the rates of mental health conditions in the military are the same or even less than the rates in the general population. Even the most common mental health problems only affect a minority of serving members and veterans. For example, less than one in five Vietnam veterans will experience any particular disorder over their lifetime (the exception is problems with alcohol – affecting about two in five Vietnam veterans).1 And at any given time, only 8 percent of serving members, 5 percent of Gulf war veterans, and 11 percent of Vietnam veterans will be affected by PTSD.[3]


Fact: Mental health problems don’t just develop because of one single event. There are a whole range of factors that increase a person’s risk of developing mental health problems, and for veterans, those factors can occur before, during, and after military service. Even though veterans are exposed to a lot of unique experiences that can influence their mental health, they’re also affected by the same issues that affect civilians. For example, as well as traumatic events experienced on deployment, about 9 out of 10 veterans will also experience at least one non-military traumatic event. [4]And in many cases, mental health problems are no more common in veterans than they are in the general community, or in non-deployed serving personnel.[5]That suggests that non-military experiences are just as important in influencing mental health as other life experiences.


Fact: People with a mental health problem are rarely dangerous, and are much more likely to harm themselves than someone else. Some mental health problems actually make it much less likely that a person will be dangerous to others; for example, someone with depression is unlikely to have the energy or motivation for violence. Even among people with severe mental health disorders like schizophrenia, violence is rare. Research has found that people with schizophrenia are about 2,000 times more likely to hurt themselves than to hurt someone else, and violence usually only occurs if the person is not receiving treatment or is abusing alcohol or other drugs.[6]


Fact: Having a mental health problem doesn’t mean that someone is “crazy”. It means they have a health condition that requires treatment. No one would suggest that someone with the flu was crazy, and it’s no more accurate to describe mental health conditions in that way. Words like “crazy” belittle and offend people with mental health problems, and only serve to perpetuate myths like the ones on this page.


Fact: Although serving members and veterans with mental health problems can play a big part in their own recovery, they didn’t choose to become unwell. They’re not lazy and they can’t just “snap out of it”. You wouldn’t say that someone with heart disease should just get over it; you’d expect them to see a doctor and get treatment. The doctor would also give advice about things the person could do themselves to help manage their condition – like cutting down on fatty foods. Mental health problems (and their treatment) are exactly the same.


Fact: One of the defining features of any mental health problem is that it interferes with the person’s home, work, or social life, so it should be no surprise that many people with mental health problems have trouble coping with day to day living. Just as the symptoms of a physical health problem may affect someone’s ability to do things, so may the symptoms of a mental health problem. And anyone with a health condition, whether it’s physical or mental, will have good days and bad days. A veteran with chronic back pain, for example, will have some days where they feel ok and be able to get to the shops or catch up with friends, and some days where they struggle to get out of bed. Rather than getting fed up when the person cancels plans or doesn’t show up when they’re supposed to, try and remember how much more fed up they probably are with not being able live life the way they want to.


Fact: Effective treatments are available for mental health problems, including both psychological therapy and medication. With the right kind of help, most serving members and veterans do recover and lead healthy, productive, and satisfying lives. Some won’t experience any further episodes of a mental health problem, while others will have recurring symptoms and will learn to manage their condition, just as someone with a chronic physical health condition would.


Fact: Men and women of all ages and all walks of life seek effective help from a variety of mental health professionals, including counsellors, psychologists and psychiatrists. Finding and accepting help are signs of coping and of preventing situations getting worse. On deployment, you wouldn’t try and take care of everything yourself; it’s all about teamwork. Looking after your mental health works in the same way. You can’t always do it yourself, and getting it out in the open means you can get the right people for the job to lend a hand.


Fact: Drinking alcohol might help manage symptoms of anxiety or depression for awhile, but in the long term it will only cause more harm. Problematic alcohol use is one of the biggest mental health issues for veterans so it’s always important to be careful with your alcohol intake, but especially if you’re suffering other mental health problems as well. Alcohol can make problems with mood and sleep worse, and can cause serious problems with work, relationships, and physical health. And remember that alcohol and medications don’t mix – alcohol can interact in potentially dangerous ways with some of the medications prescribed for mental health problems.


Fact:A family history of mental health problems can mean you’re more likely than the average person to develop one of these conditions. But there are plenty of people who develop a mental health problem even when there’s no history of mental health problems in the family, and the reverse is also true; many people who have a family history of mental health problems won’t develop one themselves. There are all sorts of factors that can increase the likelihood of developing a mental health problem. These include:

  • Stress
  • Bereavement
  • A traumatic life event (like deployment, a car accident, or a natural disaster)
  • Change in situation (such as a relationship breakdown or unemployment)
  • Abuse
  • Isolation
  • Major physical illness or disability.

Fact: The reality is that almost half of all Australians will experience a mental health problem at some point in their life.[7] And among veterans and serving members, that rate may be even higher. For example, a study conducted by the ADF in 2010 found that 54 percent of serving members had experienced a mental health disorder at some point. [8]


Fact: Most people with a mental health condition continue to live at home in their normal community, and recover well with regular appointments with a counsellor or other health professional, and the support of their family and friends. Only a small number of people who suffer from a mental health condition need to be admitted to hospital for treatment, and usually they’re only there briefly while very severe symptoms are brought under control.


Fact: Mental health conditions and intellectual disability are not the same thing. Intellectual disability is usually present from early in a person’s life, and is a lifelong condition. Mental health problems can develop at any point, and often come and go. Just like many physical conditions such as asthma or diabetes, mental health conditions can affect anyone, and people with an intellectual disability experience the same kinds of mental health problems as people without an intellectual disability. Brain damage is also not the same as a mental health condition, although there is some truth to the idea that there’s a relationship between physical damage to the brain and psychological damage. For example, mild traumatic brain injury (mTBI) and PTSD often co-occur. They also share some of the same symptoms (like concentration problems, fatigue, and irritability), and can even be caused by the same event. So for example, veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan who experienced an IED blast are at risk of both mTBI and PTSD. There is also some evidence that having an mTBI slightly increases the risk of developing PTSD,[9] but it doesn’t mean that having an mTBI means you will definitely get PTSD, or that if you don’t have an mTBI you definitely won’t develop PTSD.


Where to go for more information or help

  • Talk to your doctor or health professional
  • Call VVCS – Veterans and Veterans Families Counselling Service about counselling and their group programs on 1800 011 046
  • This website provides information about the range of professional care available for current and former serving members and answers some common questions people have about what mental health care involves.

[1] O'Toole, B. I., Marshall, R. P., Grayson, D. A., Schureck, R. J., Dobson, M., Ffrench, M., . . . Vennard, J. (1996). The Australian Vietnam veterans health study: III. Psychological health of Australian Vietnam veterans and its relationship to combat. International Journal of Epidemiology, 25, 331-339.

[2] McFarlane, A. C., Hodson, S. E., Van Hooff, M., & Davies, C. (2011). Mental health in the Australian Defence Force: 2010 ADF Mental Health and Wellbeing Study: Full report. Canberra: Department of Defence

[3] Ikin, J. F., Sim, M. R., Creamer, M. .C., Forbes, A. B., McKenzie, D. P., Kelsall, H. L., . . . Schwarz, H. (2004). War-related psychological stressors and risk of psychological disorders in Australian veterans of the 1991 Gulf War. British Journal of Psychiatry, 185, 116-126.

[4] Forbes, D., Fletcher, S., Phelps, A., Wade, D., Creamer, M., & O'Donnell, M. (In press). Impact of combat and non-military trauma exposure on symptom reduction following treatment for veterans with posttraumatic stress disorder. Psychiatry Reseach.

[5] McFarlane, A. C., Hodson, S. E., Van Hooff, M., & Davies, C. (2011). Mental health in the Australian Defence Force: 2010 ADF Mental Health and Wellbeing Study: Full report. Canberra: Department of Defence.

[6]Better Health Channel-mental illness and violence

[7] Australian Bureau of Statistics. (2008). National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing: Summary of results. Cat. no. 4326.0. Canberra: ABS.

[8] McFarlane, A. C., Hodson, S. E., Van Hooff, M., & Davies, C. (2011). Mental health in the Australian Defence Force: 2010 ADF Mental Health and Wellbeing Study: Full report. Canberra: Department of Defence.

[9] McFarlane, A., Saccone, E., Clark, L., & Rosenfeld, J. (2011). Loss of consciousness and IEDs: The issues and challenges in diagnosing mild traumatic brain injury.Adelaide: Centre for Traumatic Stress Studies, University of Adelaide.


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