Military service is a heroic act, and the men and women who have seen active service have truly put their lives on the line for others. Unfortunately, these veterans often face many struggles when they transition from military life back to civilian life. Those challenges may include a lack of purpose, missing camaraderie, feeling alone, and difficulty relating to family members or even substance use disorder or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). These heroes need to get help, but there are major barriers that must be broken down first.
The men and women who serve in the U.S. military are vulnerable to mental health issues, particularly PTSD. According to the National Center for PTSD, the rate of PTSD in the general public is about 10 percent for women and four percent for men, or seven to eight percent overall. Military veterans have higher rates1:
Post-traumatic stress disorder is a mental health condition triggered by traumatic experiences. Men and women who have seen active service may have been exposed to trauma, including watching a friend get hurt or killed or themselves being attacked or assaulted.
Not everyone who experiences trauma will develop PTSD, but those who do have distressing symptoms that impair their ability to function. These include reliving the traumatic event, having flashbacks that feel very real, nightmares, being hyper-aroused and easily startled, having a cynical outlook on life and the future, and avoiding situations and places that remind them of the trauma.
PTSD can be debilitating, and it usually does not get better on its own. Veterans who are struggling with this condition should seek professional mental health care. With proper treatment, they can overcome PTSD and enjoy a better quality of life.
In addition to the challenges of living with PTSD, many veterans face the all-too-common difficulties of transitioning from military to civilian life. These two issues often come together to make life after service even more difficult.
According to the Pew Research Center, experiencing a traumatic event during active service is the biggest factor in making the transition to civilian life more problematic. And only 34 percent of service members who were diagnosed with PTSD reported having an easy time readjusting after leaving the military.2
A big problem that veterans face when trying to readjust is coping with the loss of camaraderie they had in the military. The Veterans Administration Mental Health Services lists the transition from a culture of teamwork in the military to a more individualistic culture as particularly difficult for veterans.3 In the military, men and women rely on each other and have a unique, built-in community that helps each person adjust to new locations, posts and positions. In the civilian world, each person has to create his or her own community to get this support.
Veterans struggling with PTSD or to readjusting need to get help, but there are many barriers to reaching out and getting appropriate treatment, including stigma. Stigma is the feeling of being judged or viewed negatively if asking for help or for having a mental health condition. A veteran with PTSD symptoms may avoid asking for help because of fear of what others might think, that they will be treated differently, or that they will be discriminated against at work or in other settings.
Stigma is an often-cited reason that veterans do not get treatment for PTSD, but it is not the only one. According to research, other factors include lack of availability of mental health care, especially in rural areas, and lack of appointment availability with mental health professionals. The latter issue is blamed on a shortage of doctors and mental health professionals in the VA healthcare system.4
One solution to many of the issues facing veterans with PTSD is to train veterans themselves to help others. Having veterans as trained mental health professionals or licensed addiction treatment therapists could improve care and expand treatment while also breaking down the stigma barrier. Veteran-based care promotes camaraderie, trust and empathy. A veteran may find it easier to talk about traumatic experiences and to relate to a counselor who has also been in the military.
Some schools, including William James College in Newton, Massachusetts, are even developing programs that train veterans to be therapists and to work specifically with military patients.5 According to peer support specialists that work at the VA, by helping their fellow service members, they provide an invaluable service. They have shared experiences, understand what their clients are going through, and are able to develop a better sense of trust.6
The men and women who have served the country so bravely deserve respect, support and access to a caring and trustworthy Veterans recovery program. Unfortunately, care and support often fall short. It is important to change the stigma associated with mental illness, to help veterans transition into civilian life, and to ensure those that need mental health treatment actually get it.
1National Center for PTSD. How Common is PTSD?
2Pew Research Center. The Difficult Transition from Military to Civilian Life.
3Veterans Administration Mental Health Services. Common Challenges during Readjustment. https://www.mentalhealth.va.gov/communityproviders/docs/readjustment.pdf
4Pharmacy and Therapeutics. PTSD Treatment for Veterans: What’s Working, What’s New, and What’s Next. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5047000/
5William James College. Train Vets to Treat Vets.
6Veterans Health Administration. Veteran Talks about Suicide to Help Other Veterans.