Veteran Mental Health: How to Get Help

If you or someone you care about is having thoughts of suicide, please call/text the Suicide and Crisis Hotline at 988.

As we approach Veterans’ Day this year, we want to not only recognize and thank military veterans for their service to the country but also bring attention to the importance of veteran mental health. Serving in the military can be stressful and traumatic, and our heroes may come home with both mental and physical wounds. The U.S. has recently made some progress making a push to improve veteran mental health, but we have still have a lot of work to make sure our military vets get help for the invisible wounds that mental health issues leave.

Common Mental Health Issues for Veterans

Let’s look at some of the most common mental health issues for veterans. While these are the most common mental health issues affecting military veterans, they are not the only mental health issues a veteran can struggle with. Additionally, an individual can be diagnosed with more than one of the condition at the same time (also known as comorbid or co-occurring disorders).

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

When someone lives through a traumatic event, it’s not uncommon to experience intense emotions or nightmares or to relive the event. Usually these symptoms lessen over time, but 10-20% of those cases develop into PTSD, which can be “persistent and debilitating.” PTSD symptoms can vary from person to person and can change over time, but they generally include intrusive memories, avoidance of the event or things that remind you of the event, negative thoughts/mood, and arousal symptoms like always being on guard or having trouble sleeping/concentrating. The Mayo Clinic recommends seeing a doctor if these symptoms last for a month, if they’re severe, or if you feel like you’re out of control.

Depression

Depression is one of the most common mental health conditions in the military and is sometimes difficult to diagnose. Symptoms of depression include a low mood (which can be either persistent or episodic), difficulty sleeping, loss of interest in activities you enjoy, and thoughts of suicide. If you’re having thoughts of suicide, call or text the Suicide and Crisis Hotline at 988 for immediate help. If you are experiencing feelings of depression, talk to a doctor or health care professional.

Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI)

A TBI happens when the head or body is subject to a violent impact like an explosion or physical assault. Military deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan have a 1 in 5 chance of having a TBI. Symptoms can be cognitive (e.g., trouble concentrating), emotional (e.g., anger, anxiety), and physical (e.g., headaches, vomiting or nausea).  The Mayo Clinic recommends seeing a doctor if you’ve received a blow to the head that concerns you or if you’ve had a behavior change since receiving a blow to the head.

Suicidal Ideation

More than 6,000 vets die by suicide per year, the highest rate in history and 1.5 times greater than non-veterans. The U.S. government has made major steps to address and reduce veteran suicides in the past five years. In 2021, they released five priorities to reduce veteran suicide, including improving lethal means safety (reducing access to lethal means to follow through with suicidal plans), improving crisis care, increasing access to effective care, addressing common factors that put someone at risk for suicide, and improving coordination of research and data. If you’re having thoughts of suicide, call or text the Suicide and Crisis Hotline at 988 for immediate help.

Substance Abuse

Substance use can quickly turn into substance abuse when drugs and alcohol are used as a method to cope with PTSD, depression, anxiety, and other conditions. Approximately 1 in 10 veterans have been diagnosed with a substance use disorder (SUD) which is a higher rate than the general population. There are 11 criteria that indicate a substance use disorder, including experiencing withdrawal symptoms, an inability to control use, and using despite dangers. Meeting more than 6 of the criteria in a 12-month period indicates a severe substance use disorder.

Resistance to Getting Help

Despite the growing knowledge about mental health issues with military veterans, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) reports that fewer than 50% of veterans in need receive treatment for any mental health condition. There are several reasons why a military veteran may not seek help for their mental health:

  • Fear of being seen as weak
  • Long wait times to get help
  • Lack of services in their area
  • Concern getting help may impact child custody arrangements
  • Embarrassment or shame
  • Lack of understanding of mental health issues
  • Thinking they can fix the issues on their own

The most effective way to break down the stigma around getting help for mental health is to have open and honest conversations about it. Let someone know you are concerned for their mental health, ask them non-judgmental questions, and let them know you care and are here to help. Listen to what they have to say but know they might not be in a place to talk, and that’s okay.

Where to Get Help

If you or someone you care about is having thoughts of suicide, please call/text the Suicide and Crisis Hotline at 988 for immediate help. The following list of resources is by no means exhaustive. If you have a resource that you love that isn’t listed below, please share it with your loved ones or on social media to help spread the word and destigmatize getting help for mental illness.

The Wounded Warrior Project is a charity with several resources and programs for military veterans, including ones for mental health and wellness.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) offers information in mental health topics like anxiety, depression, PTSD, and suicide prevention as well as a resources for military members and their families.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)’s mission is to reduce substance abuse and mental illness, and their National Helpline is available to help vets and their families get help for mental health issues.

Military OneSource, the Department of Defense program for active duty, National Guard, and Reserve service members has an extensive list of resources for help regarding sexual assault, PTSD, TBI, domestic abuse, and other issues.

Tactical Recovery is a specialized program offering treatment for substance use disorder and mental health issues to veterans and first responders.

Youturn Health has an online library with education on topics like depression, anxiety, stress management, and substance misuse. Our peer coaching program pairs veterans with someone with a similar background (e.g., if you’re a veteran struggling with substance misuse, you’ll be matched with a peer coach who also served in the military and is in recovery). Peer coaches provide one-on-one support and awareness of community resources to help you make meaningful steps toward recovery.