The Australian Defence Force is an organisation striving for resilience, team cohesion and operational effectiveness. For more than ten years ADF programs have aimed to address issues of workforce diversity to foster an inclusive work environment where individuals feel appreciated and valued.
However, there is evidence that stigmatisation of military personnel returning from operational service – and experiencing certain mental health conditions – still exists.
Military personnel living with PTSD have described their feelings of being stigmatised; fearing that others in their workplace, and in the community, view them as weak. But to date, most of the research examining stigma has relied on self-reporting by these current and ex-serving personnel.
This world-first study sought to explore ways of detecting and understanding stigma to assist Defence and the ADF in monitoring and managing it.
What is Stigma?
A stigma is a personal attribute that is perceived negatively and used to mark an individual as different from, or less than, other members of a social group. When a person is stigmatised, they are marginalised or discredited by others.
Identifying stigma can be complicated though. It can cause individuals to feel silenced, which limits broader acknowledgment of its existence and impact.
So, is there a way to detect stigma in its early stages?
Language is the key!
Based on the hypothesis that characteristics of stigma can be identified by analysing language, our world-first study drilled down on 40 interviews with full-time employed mothers who had been deployed to the Middle East Area of Operations.
The industry-developed LIWC(1) tool was used to analyse speech patterns and calculate the proportion of words that refer to emotions and ways of thinking, while the SAPR(2) program converted each interview into a ‘signature’ of a person’s writing based on personality markers. A thematic analysis further examined the text for characteristics of stigma and its impact.
What was discovered?
In this study, deployed female military personnel showed a distinct, more blunted pattern of speech than women in the community. They used less unique words and showed more repetition, which is often associated with anxiety and depression. There were also clues that military personnel with mental health symptoms felt isolated from their peers, as though they were members of an outgroup – a classic symptom of those feeling stigmatised.
Elements of stigma were attributed to parenthood, gender, membership of a different service, and mental health vulnerability. Negative perceptions varied significantly, and included beliefs that the stigmatised were uncaring, incapable, distracted, not committed to service, or a threat to group cohesion. Active and passive strategies for addressing stigmatisation included self-isolation, denial, help-seeking, justification and compromise.
And this was all learned by analysing the language!
Where to from here?
This study provided valuable insights on stigma based on the small and specialised cohort of female military service personnel, producing a framework that can be used to understand and address issues of stigma. The opportunity now exists to expand this study and test the framework through a larger study of wider groups of military personnel. It can also benefit us as we research the impact of trauma on our emergency service personnel – especially following the recent bushfire emergency – to understand how loss and trauma affects individuals now and into the future.
This research united researchers from the University of South Australia, the University of Adelaide and Defence Science and Technology, using a multi-disciplinary approach. The team comprised researchers with experience and knowledge in the fields of communication, psychology and computational linguistics – an atypical collaboration that brought distinctive perspectives to a single research problem. This research project was backed by Defence Innovation Partnership Collaborative Research Funding and this summary was proudly produced by The Road Home, a charity of The Hospital Research Foundation Group.
(1) Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count
(2) Stylometric Author and Predictive Radicalisation