Veterans' Struggles with Mental Health
Serving in the armed forces can take a toll on mental health. While mental health conditions are relatively common among civilians, veterans can have heightened experiences that may negatively affect mental health.
Veterans, no matter what capacity they have served, can experience challenging mental health conditions that impact day-to-day life in a variety of ways.1 Fortunately, many of the common mental health conditions affecting veterans have been identified and there are resources readily available to assist veterans with navigating mental health concerns.
The stigma of suffering from mental health conditions can often delay treatment, especially during and after the military. The psychological effects of military service can be devastating to veterans and their loved ones making it important to seek treatment.
Understanding the common signs and impacts of mental health disorders can help with identifying the common mental health conditions veterans struggle with. Being diagnosed with a mental health disorder can be daunting, but there is a variety of resources for veterans with mental health conditions.
How Common are Mental Health Conditions in Veterans?
Mental health conditions are common among civilians and veterans, but veterans may experience them at a higher rate. Approximately 30% of active duty and reserve military personnel deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan have a mental health disorder that requires treatment. However, only 50% of returning veterans needing treatment for the psychological impact of military service receive any mental health treatment.2 These statistics are staggering, considering that millions of individuals were deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001.3
There are a variety of studies that analyze the rates of mental health conditions in veterans and active duty service members. The overall impact of these conditions is becoming even more prevalent in veterans who have served in the military.4 The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is actively conducting research studies on the psychological impact of military service and providing veterans with resources and connections to receive help.
Common Mental Health Conditions
Mental health conditions may have been experienced before serving, but there appear to be common conditions specific among veterans. Decades of research show clear patterns of behavior that indicate what conditions are prevalent in veterans and active duty service members.
Common Mental Health Conditions in Veterans:1
Anxiety is a common mental health condition and can be regarded as a typical reaction to any stressful event in life.1 When anxiety starts to affect day-to-day life, this may be a sign of an anxiety disorder. Many veterans returning from service may experience heightened anxiety including nightmares, racing pulse, and excessive fear.
Anxiety may not disappear without treatment and may begin to intensify. In cases of prolonged and persistent anxiety individuals may develop anxiety disorders such as panic disorder, PTSD, and phobia.1 Feelings of tension and uneasiness may appear when experiencing the various types of anxiety disorders. Veterans with anxiety may be prescribed medication from a medical provider to help symptoms, therapy, or a combination of both.
In general, depression is identified as one of the most common mental health conditions among regular civilians. While civilians are likely to experience depression at some point in their lives, veterans can be more impacted by depression.
According to some studies, the rate of depression in veterans is five times higher than the rate of depression in civilians.5 Depression is characterized as an intense feeling of sadness or hopelessness.6 Veterans experiencing depression may feel a range of symptoms from excessive sleeping to loss of interest.
Common symptoms of depression include:6
Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI)
TBI occurs as a result of a blow or jolt to the head. Due to the nature of operations and duties fulfilled by service members veterans may have a higher risk of TBI. The Department of Defense reported more than 375,000 reported cases of TBI among members of the U.S. armed forces.7
The number of active service members and veterans experiencing TBI may be even greater because the study only accounts for the reported cases of TBI. TBI has the potential to impact a range of abilities and behaviors in individuals suffering from the condition. Additionally, TBI can heighten a veteran’s risk for mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression.5
While most TBI injuries fall in the mild category, even the mildest cases of TBI can have long-term effects on thinking ability, memory, mood, and mental focus.7
Symptoms of TBI include:7
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
Trauma is a normal response to experiencing or witnessing a threatening or distressing event. Traumatic events can have lasting impacts on the daily lives of veterans suffering from the fallout. At times feelings associated with a traumatic event may begin to resolve after a few weeks or months.
However, continuing to experience symptoms related to trauma can be considered PTSD. The timeline for PTSD symptoms is not always clear, some may start later, or some may come and go over time.8 For many veterans, PTSD may stem from combat experiences but there can be many causes of PTSD in veterans.
Common Causes of PTSD:8
Common PTSD symptoms in veterans include feeling on edge, negative thoughts and feelings, avoiding certain things that serve as a reminder of the traumatic event, and reliving the traumatic event.9 Experiences with PTSD may be individualized and other symptoms that are not listed here may arise.
PTSD can often co-occur with other mental health conditions in veterans. Veterans experiencing PTSD may also have depression, anxiety, substance use disorders, have suicidal/self-harm ideation, or thoughts of harming others. Veterans suffering from PTSD may experience difficulty in relationships with loved ones and have trouble in day-to-day life.9
Schizophrenia impacts the psychological well-being of many veterans each year. According to a study in 2014, schizophrenia affects approximately 120,000 veterans who receive VA health care.1 Veterans and civilians who have this chronic and severe psychiatric disorder may experience hallucinations, delusions, difficulty feeling pleasure, and trouble focusing or paying attention.1 Schizophrenia has many symptoms that typically appear between the ages of 16 to 30.
Common Symptoms of Schizophrenia include:10
Seeking support and guidance from a mental health professional or doctor is vital for schizophrenia. The stigma around schizophrenia can cause a false sense of hopelessness and shame. However, when treated properly many people diagnosed with schizophrenia can live normal fulfilling lives – including veterans diagnosed with the disorder.
Bipolar disorder or manic-depressive disorder causes individuals to swing between periods of high energy to depression and hopelessness.1 The sudden and extreme change in mood may be alarming and confusing to loved ones of those suffering from bipolar disorder.
Veterans with bipolar disorder may experience periods of high energy or mania along with an overly good mood. However, those periods are followed by periods of deep depression or feelings of hopelessness. In this sense, bipolar episodes are characterized into two different categories – manic and hypomanic episodes and episodes of depression.
The emotional ups and downs of veterans with bipolar disorder can take a toll on their day-to-day life. Racing thoughts and trouble sleeping are some of the symptoms of bipolar disorder veterans may experience.1 With help and support effective treatment can be received for this mental health condition
Substance Use Disorder (SUD)
When veterans return from active duty, alcohol and other drugs may be used as a form of self-medication. Self-medication is often used to cope with feelings of stress, anxiety, depression, trauma, and other mental health conditions. The psychological effects of military service can feel unmanageable, and turning to substances may feel like the managing of symptoms.
Alcohol and other drugs provide veterans with temporary relief from symptoms they may be experiencing. However, increased levels of substance use can ultimately lead to consequences in the long term.11
Substance use disorder, commonly known as addiction, can cause an inability to control the use of substances including alcohol and drugs. When left without treatment addiction can negatively impact the lives of those addicted to the substance in question.
Symptoms of Substance Use Disorder include:11
When proper treatment for substance use disorder is received, veterans can go on to lead healthy lives. Concerns about dependence on a mind-altering substance or substance use should always be addressed by a health professional.
Veterans & Suicide
According to recent studies, the suicide rate for veterans is at an all-time high. In the year 2020, veteran’s death by suicide increased by 25%.12 Although there is no single cause of suicide in Veterans, treating the underlying conditions that cause suicidal ideation can reduce thoughts and behaviors. The tragedy of suicide is preventable if individuals receive treatment for their mental health conditions.
Veterans suffering from PTSD, depression, anxiety, or other mental health conditions have the potential to experience suicidal ideation and suicide. With treatment and assistance from medical professionals, veterans can receive the necessary support to prevent suicide.12 The numbers are staggering, but it is important to remember that veterans have access to the support needed.
A variety of treatment platforms are available to veterans to address mental health concerns. Part of the transition to civilian life is receiving the care and support needed to address any mental health concerns. Veterans may be reluctant to disclose the symptoms they are experiencing to their loved ones, medical professionals, or military personnel.5 Not disclosing symptoms or concerns regarding mental health can have dire consequences.
Fortunately, for veterans, there is a wide array of support and treatment available and easily accessible. The VA (Veterans Administration) offers treatment and support for veterans. Private treatment centers can also provide options that specialize in treating the psychological effects of military service. Speaking to a treatment provider regarding symptoms and options can help answer questions about mental health for veterans.5
Treatment for mental health conditions is dependent on diagnosis and individual needs. Therapy and medication may be utilized to help treat symptoms and underlying causes of mental health conditions.
Find Help for Mental Health Disorders in Veterans
Life can feel overwhelming for veterans experiencing the effects of mental health conditions. However, there is help available for veterans who are struggling with mental health disorders. Recovery is possible with proper diagnosis and an individualized treatment plan to fit specific needs.
If you or a loved one are struggling with mental health disorders, reach out to Solara Mental Health today. Solara can answer any questions you may have and give you a better understanding of the veteran mental health program.
- U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (n.d.). VA research on mental health. Retrieved from https://www.research.va.gov/topics/mental_health.cfm
- Veterans and Military. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.mentalhealthfirstaid.org/veterans-military/
- American Psychological Association. (n.d.). The mental health needs of veterans, service members and their families. Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/advocacy/military-veterans/mental-health-needs.pdf
- DeSimone, D. (n.d.). Military suicide rates are at an all-time high; here’s how we’re trying to help. Retrieved from https://www.uso.org/stories/2664-military-suicide-rates-are-at-an-all-time-high-heres-how-were-trying-to-help
- National Alliance on Mental Illness. (n.d.). Veterans & active duty. Retrieved from https://www.nami.org/Your-Journey/Veterans-Active-Duty
- U.S Department of Veterans Affairs. (n.d.). Mental health: Depression. Retrieved from https://www.mentalhealth.va.gov/depression/index.asp
- U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (n.d.). Mental health: Effects of TBI. Retrieved from https://www.mentalhealth.va.gov/tbi/index.asp
- U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (n.d.). Mental health: PTSD. Retrieved from https://www.mentalhealth.va.gov/ptsd/index.asp
- National Center for PTSD. (May 2019). Understanding PTSD and PTSD treatment. Retrieved from https://www.ptsd.va.gov/publications/print/understandingptsd_booklet.pdf
- U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (n.d.). Mental health: Schizophrenia. Retrieved from https://www.mentalhealth.va.gov/schizophrenia/index.asp
- U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (n.d.). Mental health: Substance use disorder. Retrieved from https://www.mentalhealth.va.gov/MENTALHEALTH/substance-use/index.asp
- Gillison, D.H. (November 2021). Veteran mental health: Not all wounds are visible. Retrieved from https://www.mentalhealth.va.gov/MENTALHEALTH/substance-use/index.asp