Veterans and mental health
Reviewed by Robert Bogenberger, PhD
Written bytherapist.com team
Last updated: 11/08/2023
Please be advised that this article mentions suicide. If you’re in crisis, help is available now: Call or text the free, confidential 988 Lifeline at 988 anytime.
In the United States, about 16.5 million people—or 6.4% of the adult population—have served in the military.1 Veterans are admired and respected for their hard work and courage, but they also face an increased risk of mental health and substance abuse issues, particularly when their military roles involve traumatic and stressful experiences.2
Common mental health concerns for veterans
For veterans, common challenges include depression, substance use disorders, traumatic brain injuries (TBIs), and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Vets are also at higher risk for homelessness and suicide.
The mental health issues many vets face are treatable. However, some veterans may avoid seeking care because they feel stigma, have trouble getting treatment, or aren’t aware of their treatment options.3
Posttraumatic stress disorder
Historically called “shell shock” or “battle fatigue,” PTSD can develop after a person goes through one or more terrifying experiences. This disorder puts someone on extreme alert, and it changes their mood and thinking. They can also have intrusive memories and try to avoid things that remind them of what happened.
Military service is stressful in unique ways. Servicepeople, especially those who see combat, may encounter serious danger or witness injury or death. In addition to these and other traumatic experiences, military sexual trauma—sexual harassment or assault during service—is reported by both women (1 in 3 veterans) and men (1 in 50 vets).4
Six percent of men and 13% of women who serve in the military develop PTSD.5 Because discrimination may affect a person’s risk of PTSD, researchers are also working to learn how common the condition is among veterans of color, LGBTQIA+ vets, disabled servicepeople, and other vets from underrepresented backgrounds.
For combat veterans with PTSD, the stress and adrenaline of past traumas can sometimes build up into aggression or violence.6 The combination of stressful experiences involved in military duty may increase this risk.7
Fortunately, PTSD is treatable, and people who receive care often see major improvement. Effective treatment options include:
- Exposure therapy
- Cognitive processing therapy (CPT)
- Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy (EMDR)
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
While a 2014 study found that older male veterans’ depression rates were similar to the general population’s, the US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) estimated in 2008 that one in three veterans who visited a primary care clinic had depression symptoms.8, 9
Depression is also treatable, and people who receive treatment often see improvement. Helpful options include:
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
- Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT)
- Interpersonal psychotherapy (IPT)
In 2020, the suicide rate for veterans was 57.3% higher than the rate for non-veteran adults.10 Mental health conditions like PTSD and depression can increase a veteran’s risk.
Substance misuse and addiction
Substance use disorders are common among vets for a number of reasons. Veterans may use alcohol, prescription drugs, or other substances to try and ease symptoms of mental or physical health conditions, especially if they feel stigma around seeking professional care.
In some cases, servicemembers participate in a culture of heavy drinking and develop alcohol dependence. Professional treatment can even unintentionally contribute to substance use problems: Some medications used to treat anxiety, for example, can be addictive.
Traumatic brain injury
Traumatic brain injuries affect the way the brain functions. They’re caused by one or more significant blows to the head or body. Shock waves from explosions can also cause TBIs.
The long-term effects of a TBI can include:
- Sleep issues
- Memory and thinking problems
- Irritability and headaches
- Depression and anxiety
Treatment for a TBI depends on how serious the injury is and where it’s located in the brain. Rehabilitation therapies may help a person regain function, adapt, and learn new skills, while medications may help ease symptoms.
About 8% of unhoused people in the US are veterans.11 Homelessness can be caused or worsened by mental illness and substance abuse, and becoming homeless puts vets at greater of both. Homelessness can also make it very hard to access treatment.
How to help
If a veteran loved one is struggling with mental health concerns or substance abuse, there are a variety of ways to help:
- Take their mental health or substance abuse issues seriously.
- Educate yourself about your their symptoms.
- Share information about mental health resources with them.
- Encourage your loved one to seek care.
- Refer them to a local VA medical center or clinic.
- Help them with day-to-day tasks if their illness makes it difficult.
In recent years, the military has been adapting many of its policies to better support the mental health of its members:
- Military OneSource provides information and resources for military families.
- In addition to many other care resources, the VA has free, confidential screening tests for PTSD, depression, substance abuse, and alcohol use.
- Behavioral health care providers may be available on base or embedded in units.
Note that while the VA can offer good treatment, it can take time to receive care. If you or a loved one have immediate mental health concerns, it may be best to look for other options.
If you or someone you love need help, search our therapist directory to find a licensed professional near you.
About the author
The editorial team at therapist.com works with the world’s leading clinical experts to bring you accessible, insightful information about mental health topics and trends.
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