Whether you’ve just come home from a tour of duty or served decades ago, being a veteran can be a complex experience. Life after the military can be full of exciting opportunities, but it can also come with a number of unique challenges. What’s more, many veterans experience mental health symptoms related to their time in the military, sometimes even years after their service ended.
Read on for more information about common mental health challenges for veterans, and what you can do to cope with them.
Prevalence of mental health challenges for veterans
Research shows that mental health challenges are very common among veterans in the United States. For example, one study found that about 31% of veterans returning from deployments in Iraq or Afghanistan reported having a mental health condition and/or a traumatic brain injury (which can also cause mental health difficulties).
And if you’re a veteran who’s struggling to get support around mental health issues, you’re not alone. The same study found that only 53% of returning veterans who showed signs of PTSD or depression had received care from a mental health professional in the past year.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs reports that suicide is also a significant concern for veterans, with veterans 1.5 times more likely to die by suicide than non-veteran adults.
Common mental health conditions for veterans
Serving in the military can be related to a wide variety of mental health conditions. Some of the most common include:
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): PTSD is one of the most common mental health conditions associated with military service, especially among troops who have served in combat.
- Depression: Persistent sadness, hopelessness, and other symptoms of depression often occur among veterans.
- Anxiety: Intense worry, feeling unable to relax, and other symptoms of anxiety are common among veterans.
- Substance use issues: Some veterans struggle with their use of alcohol and/or other substances.
- Symptoms related to sexual trauma: For servicemembers who experience sexual assault in the military, symptoms related to sexual trauma are common.
- Symptoms related to traumatic brain injury (TBI): TBI (which usually comes from a blow to the head) can lead to mental health symptoms including difficulty focusing, becoming angry or frustrated easily, or feeling confused and disoriented.
Common challenges that affect veterans’ mental health
In addition to specific mental health conditions, veterans may face a number of challenges that can have negative effects on their mental health. Though these situations vary widely, some common scenarios include:
- Adjusting to civilian life: Challenges like establishing routines outside military structures and adjusting to a slower pace of life to be difficult for some veterans.
- Finding a sense of purpose or identity: Without the clear roles and missions of military life, some veterans struggle with how to define themselves and their purpose.
- Relating to family and friends: Having had intense and often traumatic experiences while deployed, veterans may have trouble relating to people who have not had those experiences. This disconnect can make it hard to feel close to friends and family upon returning home.
- Workplace issues: Getting a job and adjusting to civilian work life can be challenging for many veterans.
- Navigating services: From filling out complicated benefits paperwork to finding service providers outside the military, the bureaucratic structures of civilian life can add stress to veterans’ lives.
How veterans can address mental health concerns
If you’re a veteran looking for support around mental health, there are a number of options you can explore.
- Therapy: Working with a therapist can help you process your experience in the military, address any mental health concerns, and develop coping strategies for civilian life. (More tips on finding a therapist below.)
- Check-ups: Especially because many mental health symptoms can be caused by underlying medical conditions, it’s important to visit your physician on a regular basis and take good care of your body.
- Support groups: Many veterans find support groups to be a helpful way to connect with other veterans and get support from others who understand what they’ve gone through. You can find a support group near you through the VA or by asking for recommendations from a healthcare provider.
- Self-help resources: The VA offers a number of self-guided mental health resources that you can use online at your own pace (though they’re not a replacement for therapy).
- Lean on family and friends: Though it may be difficult, talking with loved ones about what you’re experiencing can make it easier to cope with mental health challenges and help keep your relationships strong during a difficult time.
- Pursue creative projects or hobbies: Visual arts, performing arts, and creative writing can all be helpful ways to diffuse your body’s stress response and add fulfilling activities to your daily life. Keeping up with hobbies can also help you meet new people and find a sense of community.
- Hotlines: If you’re having thoughts of suicide or need immediate support, you can always call the Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 (press 1).
Best therapy types for veterans
A number of different kinds of psychotherapy can be helpful for veterans.
The best kind of therapy for you will depend on what kinds of challenges you’re facing, so it can be helpful to talk with a healthcare provider as you consider different kinds of therapy. A few kinds of therapy that can be especially helpful for veterans include:
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
- Mindfulness Practices
- Psychodynamic Therapy
- Interpersonal Therapy
- Existential Therapy
What to look for in a therapist for veterans issues
You’ll want to make sure that your therapist is qualified to treat veterans issues, as well as any specific related mental health problems you may be experiencing. This will usually involve:
- Advanced education in a field related to mental health, such as psychiatry, psychology, or social work;
- Licensure to practice in the state where you live;
- Additional training and/or experience in treating veterans specifically, along with previous experience with any mental health conditions you want to address. For example, if you have symptoms of PTSD, you’ll want to work with a therapist who has experience treating PTSD.
Finally, as with any therapy, it’s important to make sure that your therapist is a good fit for your unique needs. Be sure to evaluate the following in your initial calls with therapists:
- How will you pay for therapy? Does the therapist take your insurance or otherwise offer rates that will work with your budget?
- When and where will you attend sessions? Does the therapist offer treatment at a location that is convenient for you and at times that work with your schedule
- Most importantly, do you feel comfortable talking to this therapist and sense that you have the potential to develop a therapeutic alliance?