The Stigmatization Paradox

As a thematic follow-up to my recent article on managing expectations, and in response to recent events, I thought it prudent to discuss the pernicious social narrative wrapped in well intentioned efforts regarding PTSD support and counseling.

As a disclaimer, I am proud of the efforts that have been taken nation-wide to support veterans, particularly those who suffer the visible or invisible effects of war and deployment. Veteran support and awareness are built into universities, corporations, and organizations across the country. This support, however, has gradually moved from a safety net for those who serve our country, to a disclaimer that offers support but keeps veterans an arm’s length away from normative involvement in society.

This narrative shift has never been more clear since the recent attacks on law enforcement officers – both of the shooters involved were veterans.

Several articles (including CNN, the New York Times, and Military.com) detailed the veteran connection amidst discussions on PTSD and society anxiety. This leads to an increased assumption and stereotyping of all veterans having PTSD and all those who suffer as being on the verge of violence. In short, to society, veterans offer more risks than opportunities; and universities, corporations, and organizations, devote significantly more resources and energy to focusing on veteran’s challenges or issues, rather than their dreams and ambitions.

Please note that Military Job Networks has its priorities in order. PTSD and mental health support are of significant value – but this does not, and should not, take precedent over education, professional development, and overall mentoring at the macro level. A society that focuses only on what ills a community, must think that community is predominantly ill.

A personal example of this came to my former university email a few days ago. The message was from the veteran affairs department, offering veteran students and alumni condolences and concerns over the ‘triggering’ activities. The message then listed in detail all the mental health centers, counselors, and crisis hotlines that can be reached in the local area. Again, I understand the good intention. But receiving this message looked more like a presumption of sickness and risk, rather than a genuine effort at understanding and supporting the veteran community.

A report from the The Institute for Veterans and Military Families at Syracuse University highlighted that “the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) found that 46 percent of the HR professionals responding said post-traumatic stress and other mental health issues pose hiring challenges. Just 22 percent said the same about combat-related physical disabilities.”

The report further detailed that “information about this disorder is often misinterpreted or misleading. Misperceptions have emerged that negatively impact Veterans’ employment opportunities; opportunities which research shows are a major component of successful reintegration into civilian life.” The narrative subtext this article is attempting to combat is that veterans are a problem to be solved, and a risk to be mitigated – not a community allowed to succeed, fail, try and try again, and be integrated into a normative role in society.

To reiterate from my previous article – this is not to make a statement for or against a sense of optimism and positive thinking, but to provide a strategic lens for decision making as you begin to look for new opportunities, engage in professional networking, and eventually take the next step in your career. Ultimately, decision-makers have little time, and will default towards an easier decision more often than not – and veteran status increasingly raises red flags.

I know many veterans who have suffered from PTSD. Some have succeeded in transitioning into solid career and educational paths; others have struggled. By and large those who have succeeded are those who got the help they needed, but ultimately realized that the greatest support came from themselves, their friends and family, and finding a new commitment – a career or educational path that was invigorating, challenging, and became a source of pride.

I, and many, are there to support any veteran pursuing their next step. But I encourage everyone to understand the new operating environment – in the name of de-stigmatizing support, we have stigmatized professional and educational advancement.