At a panel for the Retired American Warriors PAC in Virginia, Donald Trump was asked what he would do regarding combat-related post-traumatic stress disorder and veteran suicide. He offered, "When people come back from war and combat and they see things that maybe a lot of the folks in this room have seen many times over — and you're strong and you can handle it, but a lot of people can't handle it."
According to Army veteran, Paul Rieckhoff, Founder and CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), framing the issue that way is the opposite of helpful. When members of our military return from being deployed, they may, indeed, have seen things that are difficult to process. But “‘being strong’ and/or ‘being able to handle it’ is the wrong message on PTSD/suicide and perpetuates stigma,” Rieckhoff posted on Twitter. Statements such as these are harmful in that they “perpetuate stigma and complicate an already complicated problem.” Our leaders have “a responsibility to use accurate and appropriate language when talking about mental health and suicide,” Rieckhoff insists.
The perceived stigma associated with seeking support for mental health is a major obstacle to current and former members of the military getting proper care. According to IAVA research, most respondents who did not seek care for a mental health injury were impacted by a fear of stigma. They reported they were concerned about how those close to them would view them differently.
In response to Trump’s comments, the IAVA released a statement that read, in part, “...any suggestion that suicide only impacts the weak can promote contagion and may discourage people from getting help for mental health injuries. Getting help for a mental health injury is not a sign of weakness, it’s a demonstration of strength. We encourage the public and media to use this time as a chance to educate and inform, rather than to attack and divide.”
There is no stigma associated with seeking support in recovering from a physical injury. It would be ridiculous to claim that a “strong” person just “handles” a broken bone, a gunshot wound, or any other physical injury of war without getting medical attention. As President Obama argued, “If you break your leg, you’re going to go to the doctor to get that leg healed.” Regarding mental health, he insisted, “There’s nothing weak about asking for help… You’ve got to go get help. There’s nothing weak about that. That’s strong… and there shouldn’t be a stigma against it.”
People cannot become competent members of the military without the support of military professionals. What makes people think it is any different to seek support from relevant professionals after they return? Whether a veteran suffers from a physical injury, a mental injury, or faces any other kind of challenge, there is no weakness involved in finding and availing oneself of the appropriate professional support. Accurate messaging about seeking mental health support is both essential and overwhelmingly effective. When family members urge veterans with mental health injuries to seek help, there is evidence that the vast majority get care.
At a time when roughly twenty former service members commit suicide each day, it is incumbent upon each of us to be crystal clear that there is no kind of wound that only affects the weak. Until we all speak about the less visible injuries of war in ways that make it clear that these wounds are no different than flesh-and-bone injuries, we will not be honoring those who serve.