Every military instillation provides family counselors, addiction counselors, community counselors, medical counselor, roving counselors, and counselors that focus on group work that come out to the units themselves to provide counseling services as part of the work day. With all of these services being provided, free of charge, and easily accessible, the question remains, does the stigma still exist for individuals pursuing mental health counseling? The answer is yes.
Individuals who join the military want to present themselves as strong individuals who can face any challenge. Promotions are based off of several performance based evaluations. Many of these evaluations are strictly performance based, such as physical fitness, time in service, off duty education, and rifle score. Other aspects of the evaluation, however, are subjective. Evaluations on conduct and proficiency are based on external interpretations of work performance. If the individual evaluating sees mental health counseling as a positive move for their career, then the active duty service members may feel comfortable requesting to see a counselor. If the individual evaluating sees mental health counseling as an inconvenient loss of manpower during working hours, then the service member may be less likely to pursue counseling.
In both situations, these counseling services are offered almost exclusively during business hours. Even if it is supported by the command, most individuals see a counselor between 2-8 times (or more), and their regular absence is noticed. While the superiors are not allowed to share where the individual is going, it is difficult to keep this a secret. When your peers are expected to rely on you during stressful deployments, individuals may be seen as less than capable if they need to pursue counseling while in garrison. Because of this often service members choose to utilize counseling services at self-pay private practice. Around military instillations there are often several private practices whose hours compliment the military schedule, seeing clients between 1700-2100 weekdays and all day on the weekends.
Occasionally service members are required to see a counselor due to some type of rule infraction or personal trauma (i.e. sexual assault). In this case, most likely the problem is effecting work performance, so much that they are most likely already experiencing poor work performance. As much as counseling will help this individual gain the interpersonal skills and increase their work performance back to expectations, the reputation damage has already been done, and their record of poor performance may follow this individual to each and every duty station and command.
The burden of proof of the effectiveness of counseling services is thus laid on the counselor. When meeting with clients, or offering services to a Command, it is essential to demonstrate the reason your service will increase work performance and benefit both the individual and the unit. Each individual has a job that is essential to the performance of the command, from Enlisted to Officer. If the service is perceived as beneficial and enhances unit readiness, then the Command will not hesitate encourage individuals to pursue counseling services. If the service is perceived as unnecessary then they would rather have the individual turn to peers for assistance and support.
The military is like a family and the civilian counselor is like a neighbor attempting to get an invite to dinner. If that neighbor is pushy, annoying, or disrespectful, then that family will most likely avoid answering the door every time they knock, if that neighbor is friendly and insightful then the family invites them over regularly and begins to see them as family too.
Jennifer Attila is a prevention specialist leading psychoeducational groups with active duty personnel. It is her passion to increase knowledge for current and future counselors on the unique experience that is Military culture, to better help those who serve and their families.