Debunking the myths

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

Myth: There is no connection between physical and mental health

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/ or too much, not get enough sleep or sleep all the time, stop exercising, or 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.

Myth: PTSD is the most common mental health problem among veterans

Fact: While PTSD receives a lot of attention, alcohol and drug related problems, along with depression and anxiety, also have a significant impact on veterans and their families. In fact, alcohol problems are more than twice as common as PTSD in Vietnam veterans. [1] Also, many veterans experience more than one mental health problem at any given time. Two thirds of serving members with a mood disorder also suffer from an anxiety or alcohol use disorder. [2] All of these disorders, and other problems like anger or sleep disturbance can have a significant effect on serving members and veterans and their families.

Myth: Everyone in the military will end up with a mental health problem.

Fact: The overall rate of mental health disorders in the military is about the same as the civilian population [5], although the rate is higher among ex-serving personnel [1]. Even the most common mental health problems affect only a minority of serving members and veterans. For example, less than one in five Vietnam veterans will experience any mental health disorder over their lifetime - the exception is problems with alcohol which affect 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]

Myth: Serving members and veterans only develop mental health problems because of their military experience.

Fact: Mental health problems of some veterans are directly influenced by their military experience. However, veterans all share the same general risks of developing a mental health problem as others in the community. For example, as well as traumatic events experienced on deployment, a majority of veterans will also experience non-military traumatic events. [4] The rate of mental health problems is similar among ADF personnel who have been on deployment and those who had never been deployed.[5] This suggests that non-deployment risk factors are also an important influence on the mental health of serving military personnel.

Myth: People with mental health problems are violent and dangerous.

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 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 and usually only occurs if the person is not receiving treatment or is abusing alcohol or other drugs.[6]

Myth: People with mental health problems are "crazy".

Fact: Having a mental health problem doesn’t mean that someone is "crazy". It means they have a health condition that requires treatment. Labelling people with mental health problems as "crazy" or "psycho" promotes an unhelpful and misleading stereotype and stigma. Such words belittle and offend people with mental health problems. Those affected need help and support, not negative labels and discrimination.

Myth: Mental health problems are caused by personal weakness.

Fact Mental health problems are not character flaws. It has nothing to do with being weak or lacking will-power. Although people with mental health problems can play a big part in their own recovery, they did not choose to become unwell, they are not lazy and they cannot just "snap out of it."

Myth: People with mental health problems are just making it up, and really they’re just unreliable.

Fact: One of the defining features of any mental health disorder 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 are 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.

Myth: People with mental health problems never get better.

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.

Myth: ‘Real men’ don’t talk about their problems or ask for help – counselling is for wimps.

Fact: Men and women of all ages and all walks of life seek 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.

Myth: Alcohol works better than medication.

Fact: Drinking alcohol might help avoid symptoms of anxiety or depression in the short term, but in the long term it will likely 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.

Myth: People are born with mental health problems.

Fact: A family history of mental health problems is a risk factor for an individual to also develop a mental health problem. 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 a mental health problem. There are all sorts of factors that can increase the likelihood of developing a mental health problem. These include:

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

Myth: People who have a mental health condition need to be kept away from society.

Fact: Most people with a mental health condition continue to live at home in their local community, and recover well with the support of family and friends as well as a counsellor or other health professional. Only a minority of people who suffer from a mental health condition will be admitted to hospital for treatment, and usually they’re only admitted for a brief period to treat acute symptoms and manage risks to themselves or others.

Myth: People with mental health problems have an intellectual disability or brain damage.

Fact: Mental health conditions and intellectual disability are not the same thing. An intellectual disability is usually present early in a person’s life, and is characterized by below average intelligence. People with an intellectual disability can experience the same kinds of mental health problems as people without an intellectual disability. Brain damage is an injury that causes destruction or deterioration of the tissue of the brain. People with brain damage are at increased risk of developing a mental health problem. For example, veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan who experienced an IED blast are at risk of both mild traumatic brain injury (mTBI) and PTSD, and there is some evidence that having an mTBI may increase the risk of developing PTSD.[9] However, this 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
  • There is professional care available for current and former serving members and answers to 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.