Medals and accommodations aren’t the only things you might take home after military service. A life spent in the military is stressful. Mental illnesses can take hold. And the discipline and obedience you display as a soldier can keep you from getting the help you need while you’re in active service.
Don’t let mental illness cloud your retirement. Treatment can help, even if you’ve been struggling for years. As a veteran, you have many treatment options open to you.
In this guide, we’ll outline mental health issues prevalent in veterans, including:
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
- Traumatic brain injury (TBI).
We’ll explain the role substance abuse plays in mental health. We’ll also touch on the reasons veterans avoid the help they need.
We hope this guide will prompt you to reach out for assistance. We will outline how to access help through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).
We’ll also help you explore other treatment options. If you choose not to use your VA benefits, you can still get the help you need.
Let’s get started.
Why is PTSD Common in Veterans?
Veterans have higher levels of PTSD compared to the general population. At the same time, soldiers may not discuss symptoms with one another. You may believe you’re the only one with your symptoms. That can keep you from seeking treatment.
In reality, PTSD is common, but PTSD incidence can vary by:
Between 11 and 20 percent of Iraq veterans and 30 percent of Vietnam veterans have PTSD. Those VA stats showcase battle location importance.
Guerrilla attacks, roadside bombs, blurred battle zones, and urban-style warfare can increase PTSD risks, researchers say. Entering a battle like this could cause harm. Staying on base may mitigate that risk.
Women veterans had a 13.4 percent PTSD incidence, while the rate for men was 7.7 percent. This research suggests women may have a higher risk than their male counterparts.
Clearly, risk rates vary. But the life of a soldier puts you into situations that are terrifying and hard to control. If PTSD develops, those memories can stick with you even when you leave military life.
PTSD Symptoms and Therapy
No matter where or how you got PTSD, it can make your life difficult. That difficulty remains until you get treatment.
PTSD can trap you inside of your memories. You might live with:
The sights, sounds, and smells of war invade your thoughts as you sleep. You may see the same things over and over. As a result, you may dread going to bed at night.
Sudden Daytime Fear
A car’s backfire or the smell of smoke puts you back inside your memories. You feel just as worried as you were during combat.
Numbness or Sedation
Fear is exhausting. You may have no energy left to interact with the people you love.
Home may seem like the safest space for you. Going to work or school may seem impossible.
Your therapist’s goal involves memory processing. You will work together to unpack your PTSD triggers. You will learn to live with the past, so it doesn’t invade your future. Your therapist may use medications to help you heal, but not all veterans need drugs to get better.
Why is Depression Common in Veterans?
Depression and PTSD are often tied together. Researchers say up to half of veterans with PTSD also have depression.
But depression can also develop independently. Life as a soldier comes with specific depression triggers.
The onset of depression can be caused by:
- Trauma: Surviving an attack, losing a friend, or making a mistake can all spark persistent sadness.
- Guilt: You may survive an event that kills others. You may do things you’re not proud of. Those events can cause feelings of depression.
- Health Issues: Injuries you sustain as a soldier can contribute to your sadness.
- Genetics: If someone in your family has depression, you may have a higher risk.
Some of these risk factors are common in civilians too. But others are very specific to military life. The symptoms you experience as a veteran may also make you different from civilians.
Depression Symptoms and Treatment
Depression often looks different from person to person, as can treatment approaches, but commonalities exist. They can help you spot depression. Understanding how treatment works may also entice you to get help.
If you are depressed, you might feel:
- Unable to concentrate
The VA points out that depression is highly treatable. Counseling, medications, and therapy can be used alone or in combination to help you.
Since depression can block motivation, your family may need to help you. They may prompt you to keep appointments even when you don’t want to. The longer you stay in therapy, the less outside assistance you might need to keep appointments.
TBI and Your Mental Health
Technically, a TBI is a physical health issue, but these injuries can cause damage you feel both physically and emotionally. Unfortunately, they are common in veterans.
Modern warfare puts delicate brain tissue at risk. Dirty bombs, landmines, and hand grenades all cause big explosions. Each blast allows your brain to hit your skull.
In a 2013 report, researchers said about 4.2 percent of service members from 2000 to 2011 had a TBI. Most were mild, researchers said. But about 3 percent were considered severe.
If you have a TBI, mental health symptoms can include:
- Anger: You may become frustrated quickly.
- Impulsivity: You may do things without thinking about them.
- Forgetfulness: Details, both large and small, can slip your mind.
- Inattentiveness: You may struggle with concentration.
These mental health challenges combine with physical changes. You may be in pain, and you may struggle to communicate. You can feel isolated and misunderstood as a result.
A TBI can be treated, says the VA, and you will recover quicker if you understand what has happened. Your doctor should explain what a TBI is and create a treatment program that is right for you.
Your doctor might suggest:
- Lifestyle Adjustments: Prioritizing sleep, establishing a daily routine, and engaging in hobbies you love may be helpful.
- Creating a Supportive Circle: Find people you trust, and talk with them about your TBI. Ask them to help you make decisions, as needed.
- Avoiding Chemical Triggers: Alcohol, caffeine, and pseudoephedrine can all worsen symptoms.
- Create Your Coping Plan: Use electronic reminders. Write notes to yourself. You may find ways to handle symptoms as your brain heals.
Therapy and medications may also be part of your treatment program.
Coping Techniques that Don't Work
Every mental health issue we’ve discussed is treatable. But some veterans don’t get the help they need. Instead, some turn to two methods to ease their pain: substance abuse and suicide.
Untreated mental health issues can lead directly to suicide. When the pain grows too great, you may feel as though you have no other options. The suicide rate among veterans is 1.5 times higher than the civilian rate, researchers say. It doesn’t have to be this way.
Suicide can seem like a way out, but friends and family members are left behind with pain. That trauma can lead to their own mental health issues.
Substance abuse may also seem like a good option for veterans in pain, and unfortunately, it’s common. According to the VA:
- More than 2 veterans in 10 diagnosed with PTSD also have a substance abuse issue.
- About 1 in 10 veterans coming home from Iraq or Afghanistan have an alcohol or drug problem.
- Binge drinking and tobacco use are closely tied to PTSD.
Drugs and alcohol may blur symptoms and deliver a false sense of calm and security. These substances can also change brain chemistry. Sometimes, those changes make mental health symptoms worse. Substance abuse can also trigger the development of new mental health challenges.
Leaning on substances of abuse is not a smart long-term solution to mental health challenges. Getting treatment is a better option.
Veterans do have help available. But they may have barriers to overcome.
What's Standing in the Way?
Most people know that mental health issues can be treated, but soldiers may resist getting the help they need. Military thought patterns could cause that as could a lack of information.
To address a mental health issue, you must know what it is. Unfortunately, some soldiers have no idea their symptoms are caused by mental health. For example, researchers discovered that more than 50 percent of female veterans didn’t recognize TBI or PTSD symptoms. Since they didn’t know what to look for, they couldn’t make changes.
Military life may also block willingness to enter treatment. You may worry you’re jeopardizing your future by asking for help.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness clarifies that asking for help will not hurt your career, per 2014 rules. You cannot lose security clearance. You cannot lose benefits. That is especially true if you are a veteran. Your conversation will not harm your career.
But the military life can leave you feeling unable to ask for help. A mental health issue seems like a weakness. You may have spent years hiding any sign of fault.
Overcoming that sensation might be easier if you get help in a VA program. Here, you will be surrounded by other veterans who understand what you have been through. This may help to lessen any sense of shame you feel about getting help. You are truly not alone.
Treatment Resources for Veterans
The government offers many mental health services for veterans. You can get both inpatient care and outpatient care with your benefits. There are also special programs that might be useful for some types of veterans.
VA centers are the first stop for many veterans. You can get inpatient care for significant problems. You can head to the center for appointments for outpatient care. Addiction support group meetings are often held here.
Vet Centers are made to help you adjust to civilian life. You can get help with PTSD, substance abuse, and suicidal thoughts in a center like this. You can also access counseling to help you move forward from your service. All treatments offered here are free to veterans.
Military OneSource is designed for veterans who are unsure of where to get help. Contacting this organization means getting referrals. You will learn where to go next. You will understand your benefits. And you won’t have to pay for this call at all. Support is available around the clock to veterans.
National Call Center for Homeless Veterans
National Call Center for Homeless Veterans is available 24 hours per day. A call connects you to trained staff. You can get enrolled in VA programs for health care over the phone. You’ll be told about resources in your area. You can call for yourself or someone else. There is no charge for the call.
How to Apply for VA Benefits
Everyone who served in the military should be eligible for VA benefits, but there are some exceptions. If you do enroll, you will need to provide documentation of your service. You may also have copayments to cover.
You may not be eligible for benefits through the VA if you were:
- Dishonorably discharged.
- Discharged due to bad conduct.
- Discharged through some types of court-martial.
If you don’t have these issues, you can go to the nearest VA facility and ask for an enrollment form. Staff members can help you fill out that form. You will need your DD-214 form to enroll. If you don’t have it, you can order a replacement. The VA staff can help you.
As the National Veterans Foundation points out, the VA is underfunded. That means officials with the VA need to prioritize the care they give. Some people pay nothing. Others have copayments. Some wait for visits. Others do not.
The information you provide in your form helps the VA understand where you fit in this model.
Other Treatment Options to Consider
Using VA benefits means using VA facilities.
That may change. New rules proposed in 2019 would allow veterans to use private services to help them heal. If travel to the facility is strenuous or wait times are long, veterans would have this option.
Regardless, veterans do have the option to step outside of the VA system to get care.
You can use private insurance to cover mental health treatment, and you may have smaller copayments, depending on your plan.
You can also pay for care out of pocket.
Some facilities offer very reasonable fees, and many offer payment plans to make the process of paying for treatment more manageable.
If you’re searching for care, we would like to help.
We have operators on hand to help you understand your benefits, your options, and your treatment future. Our calls are confidential and helpful.