While it is widely accepted that being a member of the armed forces is stressful, demanding and sometimes dangerous, members of the military and veterans still face stigma when admitting to mental health struggles. It can be helpful for loved ones to recognize the stresses that can place current and former military at risk for mental health concerns and the signs that they are struggling.
Mental health struggles among veterans are not a new phenomenon. A study published in the Journal of Veterans Studies points to documentation from the Revolution, Civil and both World Wars demonstrating that the mental health of those who served was adversely impacted. Because there weren’t yet the diagnostic materials to put a clear label on the conditions that occurred in service members, the broad range of mental illness and substance abuse struggles they faced were often placed under an umbrella of “nervous disease.”
Stressors During Service
People who have never served in the military may not understand the full range of challenges service members face, which can include:
- Seeing horrific things during combat
- Seeing friends die or become permanently disabled in the course of their service
- Multiple deployments
- Having to be constantly vigilant
- Traumatic Brain Injuries resulting from combat
- Physical and emotional distance from loved ones
Struggles Following Service
Once a person discharges from the armed forces, it can be difficult to return to civilian life. Those who are struggling may experience adversity in the form of:
- Substance abuse
- Inability to find/keep work
- Family problems
- Suicidal ideation
Higher Suicide Risk
For many veterans, their struggles become so overwhelming that they may contemplate ending their lives. The suicide statistics for veterans are staggering:
- 22 percent of all suicides in the United States are veterans.
- Veterans are around 42 percent more likely than the general population to have suicidal thoughts.
- In recent years, more returning service members have died from suicide than from combat.
- 14 percent of veterans who have attempted suicide in the past try again within a year.
- More than 60 percent of the veterans who attempt suicide have a known mental health condition.
Not Just PTSD
While Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is the most common mental health condition veterans face, with about 13 percent of military members diagnosed, members of our armed forces and veterans also frequently struggle with other mental illnesses and may face co-occurring conditions.
Barriers to Getting Help
A number of things can get in the way of a member of the military or a veteran getting help for mental health struggles, including:
- Embarrassment or shame
- Feeling that asking for help would show weakness
- Stigma about mental health
- Lack of understanding about mental health
- Accessibility issues, such as distance, transportation, and cost
- Cultural norms within the military of not talking about mental health
- Long waits to get help
Where to Get Help
Navigating the barriers to getting help is just part of the problem. It can also be difficult for veterans their caregivers to know where to get support:
- Mental and Emotional Health Support for Veterans and Military Family Caregivers – a free booklet that is available to help veterans and those who love them
- The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Website – information about a variety of mental health diagnoses and how they impact veterans and an app for managing PTSD
- Home Base – provides mental health support for veterans, service members and their families
- The PTSD Foundation of America – can help people with PTSD, including veterans, service members, and their loved ones to better understand the condition and find help
- The Veterans Crisis Line – a free number any veteran or their loved one can utilize to get help for a veteran experiencing a mental health or emotional crisis
- Make the Connection – stories of help and hope from and for veterans
If you would like more information about mental health and suicide prevention, Highland Hospital in West Virginia has a caring team of professionals who can guide you to answers and appropriate support.