The Best Ways for People With PTSD to Reduce Stigma

Getting mental health treatment can help

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Many people experience stigma from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The condition can be debilitating since the symptoms can lead to tremendous emotional distress, and individuals with PTSD often experience problems with relationships, work or school.

People with PTSD may also be more likely to develop other disorders, such as anxiety disorders, depression or substance abuse problems. Fortunately, effective treatments for PTSD and other disorders are available.

However, these treatments are only helpful if sought out by the person with the disorder.

This is the exception to the rule, as it has been found that among a large group of people with a variety of diagnoses (for example, major depression, anxiety disorders, substance use disorders), fewer than 30 percent actually sought out treatment. People with PTSD may be particularly reluctant to seek help.

Barriers to Getting Treatment

In one study of 1,387 people with a psychiatric disorder, the barriers to getting care were impacted by several factors, including the severity of symptoms experienced, having difficulties with daily routines and having an alcohol problem.

In addition, the following reasons for not getting help were the most commonly identified among people in this study:

  • 28 percent did not think anyone could help them.
  • 28 percent thought their problem was one that they should be able to cope with.
  • 17 percent did not think it was necessary to contact a doctor.
  • 15 percent thought the problem would get better on its own.
  • 13 percent were too embarrassed to discuss the problem with anyone
  • 10 percent were afraid of the consequences of seeking help (for example, that they would be hospitalized)

These findings suggest that, at least for some people, stigma associated with having a mental illness may be a barrier to seeking treatment.

Stigma

Stigma refers to associating negative qualities with having a mental illness. For example, a person with a mental illness may be wrongly viewed (or even view themselves) as being weak or "damaged," leading to feelings of shame or embarrassment.

Stigma may be particularly pronounced among military service members with a psychological problem. For example, one study found that among United States service members returning from Bosnia, 61 percent strongly agreed with the idea that disclosing a psychological problem would harm their career. In addition, 43 percent strongly believed that admitting a psychological problem would cause other people to not want to be around them.

They were also much less likely to follow through with a referral for getting help with psychological problems, as compared to following up on a referral for medical problems.

Another study of U.S. service members deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan found that beliefs associated with "being weak" or fears of being treated or viewed differently by people in their unit posed a barrier to seeking out treatment.

What You Need to Remember

It is important to remember that having a psychiatric disorder or a history of mental illness is not a sign of weakness or a reason to feel ashamed. Psychological problems are quite common in our society, and many of the factors that lead to the development of a disorder are completely out of a person's control.

There is no evidence that disorders develop as a result of someone not being strong enough. Fortunately, there are many effective treatments available for a variety of difficulties.

Sources:

Britt, T.W. (2000). The stigma of psychological problems in a work environment: Evidence from the screening of service members returning from Bosnia. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 30, 1599-1618.

Hoge, C.W., Castro, C., Messer, S.C., McGurk, D., Cotting, D.I., & Koffman, R.L. (2004). Combat duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, mental health problems, and barriers to care. The New England Journal of Medicine, 351, 13-22.

Kimerling, R., & Calhoun, K.S. (1994). Somatic symptoms, social support, and treatment seeking among sexual assault victims. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 62, 333-340.

Meltzer, H., Bebbington, P., Brugha, T., Farrell, M., Jenkins, R., & Lewis, G. (2000). The reluctance to seek treatment for neurotic disorders. Journal of Mental Health , 9, 319-327.

Reiger, D.A., Narrow, W.E., Rae, D.S., Manderscheid, R.W., Locke, B.Z., & Goodwin, F.K. (1993). The de facto U.S. mental and addictive disorders service system: Epidemiologic catchment area prospective 1-year prevalence rates of disorders and services. Archives of General Psychiatry, 50, 85-94.

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