It is no secret that when the subject of mental health arises, veterans are a prominent part of the conversation. This Veterans Day, it’s important to think about and advocate for mental health care for those who served in the military. The numbers surrounding this population are staggering and demonstrate that more needs to be done to address mental health disparities among veterans.
The first psychological subject that usually comes to mind while discussing veterans is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Between 11 and 20 percent of veterans from operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom are estimated to have this mental disorder in a given year. Most common signs of PTSD include re-experiencing of the traumatic event that triggered the disorder, avoidance of reminders of the event, increased arousal, and negative changes in mood. Since the changes made to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), experts agree that trauma can also include vicarious experiences. Now, an individual can be diagnosed with PTSD as a witness to a traumatic event as opposed to only individuals who experience them first hand. This opened up new possibilities for veterans to gain proper diagnoses.
Some experts believe that it may be harder today for veterans to process trauma because of mechanized warfare, as well as less time to decompress after a traumatic event due to speedier transportation and civilian demands. For example, military personnel in the early 20th century were able to take lengthy ship journeys back home where they had time to process and decompress with other returning soldiers (Howley, 2019).
Suicidality often presents as a comorbidity of PTSD for this population. Tragically, veteran suicides are not a domestic or recent crisis. It is an international crisis that spans generations. According to one expert, after WWI over 400 Americans ended their lives in New York State alone. Suicide rates in the U.S. have risen to more than 20 perday since 2001 and veterans are 21% more likely to take their own lives compared to civilians (Walker, 2019). The Veterans Administration estimates that more than 6,000 veterans died by suicide annually between 2008 and 2017, with the total suicides approximately equaling 60,000. In 2017, there was a two percent increase in suicides from 2016, and a six percent increase from 2008. Firearms were used in over 70% of male victims and more than 40% of female victims (Sisk, 2019).
In response to the tragedies of veterans’ mental health struggles, various organizations and governing bodies have attempted to reduce the crises. The main force behind this fight is the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). The VA provides various mental health services through their main offices, in online capacities, through self-help portals for everyday challenges, smartphone apps, a telehealth program, and peer support programs. There are also specialized services for varying traumas like military sexual trauma counseling and bereavement care. Employment services, substance abuse assessment and other specialized services are available like a 24/7 crisis line and caregiver support. The VA in recent years has also attempted to make their valuable services more accessible through community and rural partnerships (2019).
If all of these valuable resources exist, why has there been a continuation of mental health crises for veterans? Experts believe there are several reasons for this. Firstly, mental health specialists are severely limited, financially and educationally. This is especially true in rural areas where funding is low and services are below standards for community providers. Limited services are available in rural communities, and there is limited health coverage for veterans outside of the VA. In many community locations, there are severe gaps in quality of care, with more than half having less the minimum qualifications because of lack of training and funding. Secondly, veterans may feel reluctant to seek mental health care for fear of career repercussions, personal skepticism about treatment, and negative stigma attached to seeking professional help.
Yet, there are some solutions outlined by experts about how to reduce the veteran mental health crisis. One idea includes expanding VA health coverage and improving funding for this umbrella organization and forming new partnerships with community organizations so more veterans can be serviced. There needs to be enhanced training in veterans’ health for professionals outside of the VA. Telehealth and long-distance services for veterans should be expanded. Additionally, veterans need access to resources that help reduce the stigma around seeking mental health care (2009). Society has a long way to go towards caring more competently for veterans, but efforts are being made for this worthy population. This Veterans Day, honor not only the fallen, but the remaining who deserve physical and psychological healing.
2009. “Improving Mental Health Care for Returning Veterans.” Retrieved from: https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_briefs/RB9451/index1.html
2019. “VA Mental Health Services.” Retrieved from: https://www.va.gov/health-care/health-needs-conditions/mental-health/
Howley, Elaine. 2019. “Statistics on PTSD in Veterans.” Retrieved from: https://health.usnews.com/conditions/mental-health/ptsd/articles/ptsd-veterans-statistics
Sisk, Richard. 2019. “Alarming VA Report Totals Decade of Veteran Suicides.” Retrieved from: https://www.military.com/daily-news/2019/09/23/alarming-va-report-totals-decade-veteran-suicides.html
Walker, Simon. 2019. “If We Want to Address the Crisis of Veterans Suicide, We Must Acknowledge Its History.” Retrieved from: https://time.com/5670036/veteran-suicide-history/