The Stigma Behind Mental Health in the British Army


By: Lauren Davies, BA Sociology student

This blogpost has been written following Lauren’s experience on our Level 6 Professional Experience module, working alongside Dr Natalie Jester on a project that explores the representation of gender in British Army social media pages

Photo by RODNAE Productions on Pexels. Accessed 25 July 2022 
. https://www.pexels.com/photo/photo-of-soldier-supporting-his-team-mate-7468212/

Mental health is a prominent issue within today’s society. According to the World Health Organisation (2022), 100 million people suffer from mental health disorders in the Western Pacific Region. Even though it is evident that mental health is a topic discussed regularly and has recently been destigmatised by younger generations today, there is still some stigma behind mental health. This post will discuss the various disorders army personnel may face, the stigma behind these disorders and how the LGBTQ+ community is treated, which may impact their mental health. Within this post, I will discuss the stigma still embedded within the British army and what they are or could be doing to help this. 

What Mental Health Disorders do Army Personnel Face? 

Walker (2010) stated that when mental health and the army are discussed, the main focus is often post-traumatic stress disorder. However, army personnel often face various mental health disorders within their service or pre/post-deployment. For example, when researching mental health on the British army’s Instagram page, there was a story dedicated to mental health. Within this story were multiple army personnel from various ranks within the British army discussing their experience with mental health and how they got through it. These mental health issues ranged from depression and anxiety to psychotic episodes, which led to them being sectioned. However, Neal et al (2003) discuss psychiatric hospitals’ aim to restore patients to total active duty. They also show that the success rate in this area was 27%, although this statistic was found in 2003, which means this may have changed as people’s attitudes to mental health have improved, which is why it is essential to research this area. Although mental health can be a gendered topic, men still suffer from the stigma behind their emotions and struggle to be open about it. This ideology may be why some army personnel refuse to utilise the help offered to them regarding their mental health. 

The Gendered Stigma in the Army

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Although gender is a spectrum, only two genders were focused on in this section: Women and Men. Finnegan et al (2014) found within their research that female soldiers were more likely to attend mental health assessments than their male colleagues. This evidence could be due to the stigma men in the army face regarding their mental health as they are often taught to be ’manly’, strong and a fighter. These stereotypical ideologies of what a man should be like could be holding them back from seeking help and speaking up about their experiences as they may then be viewed as weak. However, being seen as open about their emotions and mental health could also result from stereotyping, as women are often viewed as emotional and caring. This ideology may help women feel comfortable when seeking help for their mental health issues as they may feel that they will be taken seriously due to this view. Finnegan et al (2014) also discovered that young men in the British army may be the most at risk for mental health disorders as the UK is the only army that can recruit soldiers under 18 years of age. Many of these young men come from “disadvantage backgrounds” (Finnegan et al, 2014) as they may not enjoy or thrive in academic situations, so they leave home and join the army. Many young men who leave education often hated school because they felt like outsiders, possibly due to undiagnosed mental health disorders such as ADHD, anxiety or autism. For example, Bailey (2013) discusses how children with undiagnosed ADHD are often believed to be only naughty children or have bad parents, which is another stigma that may lead to further harm. Untreated mental health disorders before joining the army could leave them vulnerable when faced with traumatic situations such as deployment. Young men from these areas may also be more likely to be diagnosed with depression, leaving them more susceptible to post-traumatic stress disorder when in challenging situations.                                                                                                                                      

Another gendered issue within the army is combat experience, as men are more likely to experience it. However, when men and women face combat situations and develop mental health disorders, there is often a gendered issue. Woodhead et al (2012) discuss how women reported more significant symptoms of mental health disorders and men reported greater hazardous alcohol use. It was also evident on the British army’s Instagram posts that male army personnel turn to alcohol or drug abuse to numb their pain more than women as the male soldiers opened up about their struggles, whereas the female soldiers discussed seeking help. One prominent gendered issue was the trauma that led to soldiers’ mental health disorders. For example, Jones et al (2009) found that women and men diagnosed with PTSD in the army were often diagnosed for different reasons. The male soldiers were often diagnosed due to combat trauma, whereas the female soldiers were often diagnosed due to sexual trauma or general harassment. These situations may apply to both genders, but it was evident that these situations were more likely to be gender related. There are many gendered issues regarding mental health in the army, but the stigma behind mental health is one of the significant issues which needs to be resolved so that everyone suffering can seek the help they need. 

The LGBTQ+ Community and Mental Health in the British Army

Upon further research, it was evident that there is little understanding or recognition of the LGBTQ+ community and mental health within the British Army. For example, on the LGBT British Army’s Instagram account, there was little to no mention of mental health. The only evidence of mental health was the link to the ‘Headspace app’ in their Instagram bio, which, when clicked upon, leads to free access for any British Army personnel. However, after researching secondary academic data, it was evident that LGBTQ+ army personnel had some issues with the mental health aid in the army. For example, McNamara et al (2021) discussed how many LGBTQ+ army personnel were afraid to partake in the therapy offered due to the belief that disclosing their true identity to their therapist could lead to losing their army career. This fear could be due to the stigma behind their identity, which could further perpetuate mental health stigma. Therefore, they may face a double burden within the military and be viewed as an “outcast” or “weak”. Within this same academic source, it is disclosed that some mental health aid is provided through chaplains, which may prevent the LGBTQ+ soldiers from seeking help as they may have trauma or negative experiences with religion. However, soldiers in the LGBTQ+ community must access the help they need. Byne and Wise (2020) state that “sexual and gender minorities” go through poorer mental health than their heterosexual and cisgender colleagues due to the stress of having a stigmatised identity in such a heteronormative environment. This environment, often filled with stereotypical ideologies of what men and women should be, can perpetuate the issues that the LGBTQ+ community face, which may further damage their mental health.

Another issue I discovered during this research was a ban on LGBTQ+ members within the army between 1995 and 2000. Paige et al (2021) discuss how many army veterans in the UK were forced into early retirement or dismissed from the army based on their identity. However, there is little research surrounding this issue. Many charities are helping bring awareness to this, including the NHS and mental health trusts. This ban could significantly affect LGBTQ+ soldiers as they may be left feeling unwanted or different, which could add to the stress the army already places on its soldiers. LGBTQ+ soldiers could also be afraid to disclose their identity due to fears of losing their job, which may be why many LGBTQ+ soldiers are reluctant to utilise mental health services. 

The Stigma Behind Mental Health in the Army

It is evident that even within today’s society which is more accepting and understanding of mental health issues, there is still stigma within the British army. There is stigma behind these mental health issues which harms people’s view of mental health within the British Army, such as gender, sexuality and stereotypes. Once these issues are resolved, it would create an open space for everyone suffering from mental ill-health within the army to seek the help they need. 

References

Bailey, S. (2013) Exploring ADHD: An Ethnography of Disorder in Early Childhood. London: Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203119723

Byne, W and Wise, J. (2020) ‘Toward Optimizing Mental Health Care for Sexual and Gender Minority Veterans’. Focus: The Journal of Lifelong Learning in Psychiatry 18(3), pp. 289-295. Accessed 12 July 2022. https://doi.org/10.1176/appi.focus.20200009

Finnegan, A., Finnegan, S and Thomas, M. (2014) ‘Factors Affecting Mental Health Support to the British Armed Forces: Part Two’. (2014) Journal of Community Nursing 28(6) pp. 53-58. 

Jones, N., Fear, N. Greenberg N., Hull, L and Wessely, S. (2009) ‘Occupational Outcomes in Soldiers Hospitalized with Mental Health Problems’. Occupational Medicine 59 (7), pp. 459–65. https://doi.org/10.1093/occmed/kqp115

McNamara, K, Lucas, C,. Goldbach, J., Castro, C and Holloway, I. (2021) ‘“Even If the Policy Changes, the Culture Remains the Same”: A Mixed Methods Analysis of LGBT Service Members’ Outness Patterns’. Armed Forces & Society 47(3), pp. 505–29. https://doi.org/10.1177/0095327X20952136

‘Mental Health’. Accessed 21 July 2022. https://www.who.int/westernpacific/health-topics/mental-health

Neal, L., Kiernan, M., Hill, D., Mcmanus, F and Turner, M. (2003) ‘Management of Mental Illness by the British Army’. British Journal of Psychiatry 182 (4),pp. 337–41. https://doi.org/10.1192/bjp.182.4.337

Paige, C, Dodds, C and Jones, C. (2021) ‘Mental Health and Well-Being of LGBT+ Veterans Dismissed from the British Armed Forces before January 2000’. Journal of Military, Veteran and Family Health 7(1), pp. 122–26. https://doi.org/10.3138/jmvfh-2021-0032

Walker, S. (2010) ‘Assessing the Mental Health Consequences of Military Combat in Iraq and Afghanistan: A Literature Review’.  Journal of Psychiatric and Mental Health Nursing 17(9), pp. 790–96. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1365-2850.2010.01603.x

Woodhead, C., Jones, W., Fear, N and Hatch, S. (2012) ‘Impact of Exposure to Combat during Deployment to Iraq and Afghanistan on Mental Health by Gender’. Psychological Medicine 42(9), pp. 1985–96. https://doi.org/10.1017/S003329171100290X

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