Getting Rid of Shame and Stigma

Members of the Canadian Armed Forces and Canadian military veterans are trained to defend our country. They face high expectations. They are called upon to have courage in the extraordinary circumstances of combat and active duty. While their service is honoured by many, it can be difficult for civilians to truly understand the high toll it can take on mental and physical health.

Military service is often associated with heroism and stoicism, but that does not change the fact that many active-duty members and veterans experience serious trauma that can lead to PTSD and addiction. Thousands of military members struggle with their mental health, but many of them do not seek help. There is a persistent fear that seeking help will result in career damage. The Canadian Armed Forces has a zero-tolerance policy for drug use, which complicates matters if an active member is struggling with substance misuse.

Addressing that stigma is not a simple matter. It demands serious cultural change within the military — change that addresses how mental health and mental illnesses are viewed at the institutional and individual levels. While change takes time, it can start small. Speaking about mental health is already becoming less of a taboo topic. Change can start with military members and veterans recognizing when they need help and asking for it.

Addiction in Military Members and Veterans

Addiction can take many forms. Many people associate addiction with illegal drugs, like cocaine or heroin. However, people can also develop addictions to legal prescription drugs and alcohol. Many service members report binge drinking. According to one study, about one in six soldiers in Canada’s Armed Forces were affected by symptoms of alcohol-related or mental health issues.

One risk factor for addiction among military members and veterans includes:

  • Trauma: Military members may turn to addictive substances to cope with issues like PTSD. PTSD is caused by traumatic experiences such as combat. It can cause intense flashbacks, nightmares, angry outbursts and anxiety. Without proper treatment, these symptoms can be incredibly disruptive to daily life. Drinking or using drugs may dull the symptoms, but this will not address the underlying cause or help you find a long-lasting solution.

Some military members and veterans may also struggle with other untreated mental health conditions. Anxiety and depression are common mental health conditions that affect many people, both in the military and in civilian life. Some other contributing factors for substance use disorder are:

  • Physical pain: Veterans may use alcohol or drugs to manage chronic pain related to physical injuries sustained in the line of duty. Lost limbs, shrapnel wounds and head trauma are common injuries associated with active combat. Even military members who do not see combat can experience injuries related to the physical nature of their duties.
  • Environment: The environment you grow up in and live in as both a child and an adult can influence your risk for addiction. If you are in a place where binge drinking or drug use is normalized, you may experience peer pressure to partake in the same behaviour.