Common Barriers Encountered When Seeking Mental Health Services

Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences
Common Barriers Encountered When Seeking Mental Health Services

Warfighters lead stressful lives, so it’s important to seek support and resources to help you cope and stay ready for duty. While many wouldn’t hesitate to see their doctor about a physical ailment, asking for help to address psychological struggles can feel overwhelming.

Nearly 44 million adults in the U.S. — about 1 in 5 — experience a mental illness every year. In the military population, those statistics are even higher. More than 1.6 million service members have deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq since 2001, and almost 19% have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or depression And only half of those who need mental health support actually seek treatment.

There are many barriers that people encounter when seeking mental health support from outside sources. Here are examples of what the most common barriers sound like and some recommended courses of action (COA) you can take to start moving past whatever’s standing in your way.

Barrier: You might think, “I’m not sick. I’m just having a tough time right now, and these feelings will go away if I just give it some time.”

COA: It might be true that what you’re experiencing is a temporary and normal response to stress, trauma, changing responsibilities, or life circumstances. But having a lack of mental health literacy means that you might not believe what you’re experiencing are symptoms of a more serious mental illness. You can take an assessment to learn about depression symptoms or read about a common issue such as PTSD However, it’s important to remember that these resources are just for information. So use them to get familiar with symptoms, but not to self-diagnose.

Barrier: You might think, “People will think I’m weak because I’m asking for help. I’m embarrassed that I’m going through something like this.”

COA: Stigma is the idea that there should be shame or disgrace associated with having a mental health condition or diagnosis. Stigma around mental illness still exists in the military as well. Still, it’s important to examine your own beliefs about mental health care and chip away at stigma by considering what “good” health is without mental health. Many believe that asking for help is a sign of weakness. Instead, consider how seeking help could actually be a sign of strength and a reflection of your commitment to your unit, teammates, family, and others who depend on you.

Barrier: You might think, “There aren’t any providers near me, and the behavioral health professional won’t understand me anyway.”

COA: No matter where you’re located geographically, you can connect to a provider through Military OneSource, a confidential, one-stop-shop resource for all of your most pressing issues including your psychological health, finances, and family relationships. Finding a provider you feel comfortable with might take a few tries, but remain open and optimistic. Try to increase your odds of finding a match by doing a little bit of preparation with the Real Warriors guide Learn which questions to ask your mental healthcare provider to help make your visit successful.

Barrier: You might think, “Seeking help will ruin my career and threaten my security clearance.”

COA: It’s easy to focus on the possible downsides of seeking help. But it might be time to examine the potentially devastating impact of NOT seeking help: It can affect your career, friends, and loved ones. Consider that others have received help and achieved successful careers, but they might not have been willing to talk openly about things because of stigma or shame Keep in mind the act of seeking mental health care alone (or your response to question 21 on the SF 86) will not automatically disqualify you from getting or maintaining a security clearance. Good judgment and other factors truly impact your security clearance status.

Take action

Everyone has moments in life where they experience struggles. Just like physical ailments, psychological struggles are normal responses to adversity. The greatest barrier to help is often yourself. While admitting you need additional support might feel difficult, getting treatment can help you maintain optimal levels of readiness, performance, and resilience.

To learn more about mental health, visit the National Alliance on Mental Illness webpage.


Coleman, S. J., Stevelink, S. A. M., Hatch, S. L., Denny, J. A., & Greenberg, N. (2017). Stigma-related barriers and facilitators to help seeking for mental health issues in the armed forces: A systematic review and thematic synthesis of qualitative literature. Psychological Medicine, 47(11), 1880–1892. doi:10.1017/s0033291717000356

Graziano, R., & Elbogen, E. B. (2017). Improving mental health treatment utilization in military veterans: Examining the effects of perceived need for care and social support. Military Psychology, 29(5), 359–369. doi:10.1037/mil0000169

Kantor, V., Knefel, M., & Lueger-Schuster, B. (2017). Perceived barriers and facilitators of mental health service utilization in adult trauma survivors: A systematic review. Clinical Psychology Review, 52, 52–68. doi:10.1016/j.cpr.2016.12.001

Posted on BrainLine March 25, 2019.

“Take responsible action for your mental health.” USU | CHAMP, Human Performance Resource Center, 15 May 2017.