The Issue with Mental Health in Veterans
When we think about the military, we often associate it with great privilege and benefits. In reality, though, it can be a challenging experience for veterans. PTSD and depression in veterans are some of the most prevalent mental health issues because of the traumatic events they experience during their time in service. They also face many social and economic challenges that make it difficult to adjust to civilian life. Here are some common VA mental health problems veterans face upon returning from combat and where they can seek treatment.
Who Are Veterans?
Veterans are people who have served in the military and were discharged. They are people who experience battlefield, combat, and life-threatening situations and often put themselves at risk to defend and protect the country they serve. The word veteran comes from the French word vétéran or Latin veteranus, meaning “old, aged, that has been long in use.”
According to the Department of Veterans Affairs data, there are more than 19 million US veterans, representing less than 10% of the total US adult population.1
What Risks Do Veterans Face Regarding Mental Health?
The military is an increasingly dangerous job. More and more veterans are now coming back from deployment with injuries, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and other VA mental health issues. Veterans face many unique risks related to their mental health, such as:
- Increased risk of suicide
- Increased risk for substance abuse
- Increased risk for PTSD
- Increased risk for depression and anxiety
- Increased risk for social isolation and loneliness
- Decreased quality of life
- Decreased employment opportunities
- Family separation and family dysfunction
- Societal isolation or alienation due to loss of connection with military service or lack thereof
The Most Common Mental Health Issues Veterans Have
The two most common mental health VA issues are PTSD and depression. It is estimated that around 14% to 16% of US service members deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq suffer from PTSD or depression.2 Anxiety in veterans is another common condition, along with substance use disorder (SUD) and serious mental illness (SMI).
VA Mental Health Evaluations
VA Mental Health Evaluations are medical evaluations done by the Department of Veteran Affairs to determine if a veteran is “unfit” for duty. Veterans who have served in the military since November 11, 1998 are required by law to undergo these evaluations. The VA mental health evaluation questions are usually done by a psychiatrist or psychologist employed by the VA. The evaluations were created to address two things: 1) To provide an accurate diagnosis of PTSD or other veterans mental health conditions that may impact their ability to do their jobs and 2) To provide appropriate treatment for any diagnosed condition.
Depression is one of the leading veterans mental health conditions. According to studies, around 9% of all ambulatory military health network appointments are due to depression. Moreover, military medical facilities recorded increased depression among military members after deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, from 11.4% to 15%.2
Some risk factors that can stimulate the development and progression of depression include:
- Being separated from loved ones and support systems
- Combat stress
- Seeing oneself and others in harm’s way
Symptoms Of Depression in Veterans
Depression in veterans can manifest itself through a range of symptoms, including:
- Depressed mood
- Loss of interest in activities once found enjoyable
- Weight loss or gain
- Difficulty concentrating
- Sleeping too much or too little
- Feeling tired and lethargic
- Thoughts of worthlessness
These feelings may worsen over time, lingering for weeks or months at a time. When left untreated, the feelings of depression may worsen into suicidal thoughts or actions.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
PTSD is most researched in veterans; however, it can affect anyone, including children and older adults. It often appears in people who survive violent events, such as disasters, assaults, terror attacks, and war. It is also possible to experience PTSD from secondhand exposure, such as having a family member who experienced an accident.
Veterans are at a higher risk of experiencing PTSD than the general population. One study of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans found that 13.5% of deployed and nondeployed veterans had PTSD. Other studies show the rate to be as high as 20% to 30%.3
Causes of PTSD in Veterans
Some factors that can cause PTSD to develop and aggravate its symptoms in veterans include what happened in the war and the actions they took, the politics around the war, and where the war was fought.
Another cause for PTSD in veterans can be military sexual trauma (MST). MST is any sexual harassment or assault that happens while in the military.
According to a study conducted by the RAND Center for Military Health Policy Research, less than 50% of veterans suffering from mental health issues receive treatment. Moreover, less than one-third of those who receive treatment for PTSD and major depression receive evidence-based care.3
Symptoms of PTSD in Veterans
The symptoms of PTSD in veterans may begin within one month from being exposed to a traumatic event, or they may not appear until years after the event.
PTSD symptoms in veterans are generally grouped into four types: re-experiencing, avoidance, arousal and reactivity, and cognition and mood symptoms. Re-experiencing symptoms include flashbacks (reliving the trauma), bad dreams, and scary thoughts. For avoidance symptoms, veterans may experience feeling the need to avoid places, people, or activities that are reminders of the traumatic event and avoid thinking about the traumatic event. Arousal and reactivity symptoms include being easily startled or frightened, feeling tense, having trouble sleeping, and experiencing angry outbursts. Lastly, cognition and mood symptoms include issues with memory, negative thoughts about oneself or the world, feeling guilt or blame, and loss of interest in once enjoyable activities.
Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI)
Traumatic brain injuries (TBI) are among the most devastating injuries that the human body can sustain. They are caused by external forces impacting the brain or skull, resulting in either physical damage to the brain’s structure or internal bleeding. Veterans are at high risk of brain injury from explosions experienced during combat.
According to the CDC, roughly 430,000 US service members were diagnosed with TBI from 2000 to 2020.4 Moreover, veterans with TBI may experience ongoing symptoms and develop a co-occurring health condition, such as PTSD or depression. It is still unclear whether TBI contributes to the development of depression and PTSD or if other factors such as deployment and exposure to combat play a stronger role.
Symptoms of TBI in Veterans
The signs of TBI in veterans might vary, depending on the severity of the injury. Some of the most common symptoms of TBI in veterans include dizziness, headaches, irritability, memory problems, nausea, vomiting, and trouble concentrating.
Treatment of VA Mental Health Issues
Reintegrating into civilian life is a significant transition for veterans. During this time, veterans face an increased risk for developing substance use disorders and mental health issues. For example, a military veteran with a substance abuse problem is three to four times more likely to live with depression or PTSD.
VA Mental Health Services at Great Oaks Recovery Center
Veterans suffering from a co-occurring disorder need access to VA mental health services such as evidence-based care that is personalized to meet their unique needs. The most appropriate treatment should include one-on-one and group therapy, family therapy to improve the client’s support system, and medication-assisted treatment if the veteran is dealing with a substance use disorder to opioids.
Tactical Recovery Program
Great Oaks Recovery Center is certified as Veteran Ready Healthcare Provider Organization by Psych Armor. Our Tactical Recovery program for veterans serves the needs of the men and women who have dedicated themselves to protecting their country.
We provide safe, professional, and confidential services to our clients at our residential facility.
Our individualized treatment programs focus on each client’s specific issues, including past traumas. Great Oaks Recovery Center offers help for veterans with PTSD, depression, and other mental health issues by focusing on healing the whole person: body, mind, and spirit.
Great Oaks Recovery Center includes family members in the recovery process. While one-on-one VA therapy can be beneficial for veterans, it is also critical that veterans work on their family relationships to have the support they need during treatment. Studies show that veterans who attend family counseling are more likely to recover from PTSD symptoms than veterans attending only individual therapy. The goal of the family program is to improve understanding of veterans mental health issues and communication among family members.
For more information about the program or to start the process of admitting to one of our VA mental health facilities, please contact Admissions at (877) 463-3553.