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Tackling self-stigma to strengthen your recovery journey

Man looking pensive on sofa during counseling session. Counselor's tablet is visible in foreground.
Veterans who struggle with self-stigma should seek help to minimize obstacles to their recovery.

Fueled by her military experience, Janie Hall became a peer support specialist with Fort Harrison VA Medical Center to help guide fellow Veterans toward improved mental health.

She champions the suicide-prevention campaign – ‘Don’t wait. Reach out.’ – which encourages Veterans to seek support and resources when life gets challenging. Hall extends this message to Veterans facing the stigma of asking for help, particularly during a mental health crisis. 

“If we never step up and ask for help, we’ll never know what the possibilities are,” she said. 

Facing stigmatization
Hall admits that Veterans who struggle with mental health issues or experience homelessness can be stigmatized by others. 

“It’s not always drugs or alcohol – just life,” she said. “It happens.” 

In her work, Hall helps develop projects designed to lessen external stigmas. She acknowledges an emerging movement within VA that focuses on the concept of self-stigma. 

The power of perception
The Veteran Integrated Service Network 5 Mental Illness Research, Education and Clinical Centers defines self-stigma as the harm caused when people start to define themselves by the stereotypes they are exposed to.  

Ending Self-Stigma is a program developed by MIRECC and the University of Maryland School of Medicine Department of Psychiatry. The program helps people experiencing mental health problems resist the potentially harmful effects of internalized stigma. 

Presented in nine sessions, the program translates research on reducing the harmful effects of mental illness stigmatization into practical, personalized strategies people can use to break the cycle of detrimental reflection and move toward recovery. 

Hall, and other professionals in this field, are able to translate this program data into real-world messages of hope. 

“Let’s remember who we are – a mother, a dancer, a farmer,” Hall said. “I am so much more than my diagnosis.”

EASE-ing Self-Stigma 
Specific strategies emerged from the ESS movement. Education, Awareness, Shift perspective and Empower are the hallmarks of the EASE program, also developed by MIRECC. They were designed to combat societal and internalized stigma and bring Veterans back to a place of psychological health and well-being.

Education focuses on facts instead of myths that perpetuate misconceptions. Awareness engages Veterans in group or individual discussions about stigma. Shifting perspective involves harnessing thoughts to recognize self-worth beyond a diagnosis and therapy to reach goals. Empowerment allows Veterans to identify and embrace their positive qualities, values and accomplishments. 

Recognizing the potential benefits to Veterans at her home facility, Hall is bringing awareness of the EASE program to VA Montana Health Care. 

Military mindset
Mental health challenges don’t arise from self-stigma alone. Sometimes challenges come from stereotypes and fixed mindsets. 

“Montana is a tough state when it comes to mental health,” said Hall. “The ‘cowboy-up’ mentality is strong, reinforcing phrases like ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps’ or ‘rub some dirt on it.’ The military mindset also makes it hard for many Veterans to ask for help.” 

Hall, who is working to institute the EASE program locally, knows that breaking stigmas can mean life or death for someone in crisis.

“I encourage Veterans to consider this,” said Hall. “It takes more courage to ask for help than it does to stay silent – ‘Don’t wait. Reach out.’”

For more information on the availability of the EASE program, call Fort Harrison VA Behavioral Health Department at 406-447-6000.

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April Love is a writer-editor on the VISN 19 Creative Task Force. She began working for VA Eastern Colorado Health Care System in 2016 and lives in Aurora, Colorado.

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