Veteran Mental Illness and System Justification Theory
Rates of mental illness are rising among Veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. This social problem has had significant consequences, such as spikes in homelessness, unemployment and suicides in this population. Many argue there are too many barriers to mental health treatment in a society that stigmatizes mental illness and undervalues mental health care. Research supports this assertion, particularly within the Veteran population (Greene-Shortridge, Britt, & Castro, 2007). System justification theory offers an explanation for why society stigmatizes mental illness in spite of the devastating consequences of treatment underutilization.
As noted previously, system justification theory suggests that individuals possess a motive to justify and rationalize the status quo. According to the theory, stereotypes are often used to bolster the status quo because they easily explain differences among groups and thereby justify inequalities. The most commonly held stereotypes about mental illness in Western society are that its sufferers are dangerous, incompetent and personally responsible for their illness (Dickstein, Vogt, Handa & Litz, 2010). Not surprisingly, stereotypes like these have resulted in the persistent stigma around mental illness that exists today.
Corrigan, Watson and Ottati (2003) argue this strong stigma has legitimized a historically inequitable system of treatment for those with mental illness. As far back as the Middle Ages, the mentally ill were sent to prisons because they were perceived as dangerous. Beginning in the 19th century, they were transitioned to asylums and hospitals due to the widely held belief that they were not only dangerous, but also incompetent. Many are now returning to prisons as a result of the deinstitutionalization movement of the 1960s. Finally, the legal battle for mental health parity in the United States represents another example of inequality (Rovner & Cornish, 2013).
If system justification results in stereotypes that justify unequal treatment, it is not surprising that people with mental illness often do not engage in mental health care. This becomes even less surprising when one delves a little deeper into the theory. According to theorists, increased system justification will cause a stigmatized group to internalize negative stereotypes and self-blame. These feelings lead to low esteem and, in turn, a more favorable view of the stigmatizing group. Self-stigma is particularly problematic in the Veteran population and can help explain their unwillingness to seek treatment (Dickstein et al., 2010).
As part of military training, members are instilled with values of toughness, mission focus and self-sufficiency (Tanielian & Jaycox, 2008). When a military member or returning Veteran begins to feel symptoms of a mental disorder, this belief system is already in place to convince them that they are weak and should be able to overcome...