Fort Hood Shootings and Mental Health Stigma
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04-04-14 Category: Mental Health

On Wednesday, April 2, the nation was devastated by news of a second mass shooting at Fort Hood, Texas, within five years. Specialist Ivan Lopez went on a shooting rampage, killing three people, wounding 16, and ending his own life. Last August, former U.S. Army psychiatrist Major Nidal Hasan was sentenced to death for the 2009 shooting rampage on the base that killed 13 and wounded 30. The latest incident is the third in the past five years on a domestic military installation, including the 2009 Fort Hood shooting and an incident at the Washington Navy Yard this past September.

Although authorities are still investigating the details, including Lopez’s intentions and motives, every major news report about the incident mentions the fact that he suffered from behavioral health issues, and was being assessed for possible post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). He had served for four months in Iraq in 2011, and had a self-reported brain injury, but there are no Army records indicating that he was wounded.

There is a stigma attached to PTSD based on a stereotype that sufferers will go on violent rampages and killing sprees. However, for the most part, PTSD does not cause such violent behavior; instead, PTSD tends to lead to isolation. Other mental health disorders generally have stigma attached to them that makes it difficult for those suffering from the conditions to get the help they need. The stigma attached to PTSD becomes even worse when stereotypes are reinforced by an event like the Fort Hood shooting being linked to the condition.

Lopez’s Mental Health

Although it is unknown whether Lopez had PTSD, he was in treatment for depression, anxiety, and sleeping disturbances, which included medication such as antidepressants and Ambien, a nonbenzodiazepine hypnotic frequently prescribed to treat insomnia. Investigators believe at this time that his medical history most likely contributed to his actions against his fellow soldiers at the base.

In his medical and psychiatric examinations only weeks prior to the event, he did not display any signs indicating that he was in danger of harming himself or others. His doctors were planning to maintain his treatment and monitor his behavior.

Investigators may never learn the exact reasoning behind Lopez’s rampage. Some believe that an altercation prior to the shooting led to his violence, although there is no indication that he targeted specific victims. Blaming his mental health is an easy answer, but it puts millions of Americans with mental health disorders at risk of not seeking help due to the stigma surrounding the conditions.

The Barrier of Mental Health Stigma

A recent study has found that stigma surrounding mental health disorders is a significant barrier to people deciding to seek treatment. A team of researchers from the United Kingdom’s Kings College London performed a systematic review of data from 144 studies with over 90,000 global participants to answer the question: “what is the impact of mental health-related stigma on help-seeking for mental health problems?”

According to the study, 1 in 4 people have a mental health problem. However, in both Europe and the U.S., up to 75 percent of those with mental health disorders do not receive treatment. Early detection and treatment provides the best chance of recovery for those with mental health. If a person chooses not to seek help due to stigma, then he or she will only encounter worse problems.

Professor Graham Thornicroft, from the Institute of Psychiatry (IoP) at King’s College London and senior author of the paper, says: “We now have clear evidence that stigma has a toxic effect by preventing people seeking help for mental health problems. The profound reluctance to be ‘a mental health patient’ means people will put off seeing a doctor for months, years, or even at all, which in turn delays their recovery.”

The study reviewed the different barriers people faced for receiving formal treatment services, including from a medical doctor, a specialized facility, and talk therapy. Stigma was ranked the fourth-highest of 10 barriers. The main stigmas preventing people from seeking help were a stigma against the treatment (having negative connotations about the treatment) and internalized stigma (shame or embarrassment over the condition). Other important barriers found by the study were a fear of disclosing the condition, a concern over confidentiality, wanting to handle the problem alone, or not believing they needed help.

The study also found that stigma had a greater impact for certain groups of people, including young people, men, people from minority ethnic groups, military professionals, and health professionals.

Anti-stigma campaigns are important to help people realize that treatment is important—and that they are not the only one suffering from the condition. Additionally, de-stigmatizing mental health disorders will help people not feel ashamed or embarrassed, so they will seek help. Unfortunately, incidents that make the news like the latest Fort Hood shooting will only continue to perpetuate the stigma and the subsequent barrier to treatment. When events like this happen, it is even more important to remind people about the reality of mental health conditions, rather than promote the stigma.

Mental Health Treatment at Sovereign Health Group

Sovereign Health Group offers state-of-the-art, evidence-based treatment for a variety of mental health conditions, including PTSD, depression, anxiety disorders, OCD, and bipolar disorder. We use a biopyschosocial approach that treats the individual, not the disorder. You can learn more about our program here. We also offer treatment services for addiction and dual diagnosis. Call our Admissions team today at 866-264-9778.

photo credit: glen.humphrey

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