Veterans Mental Health Illnesses and the Available Treatment Options
About 1.15 million veterans suffer from at least one mental illness. Although military service members deserve the best treatment, most choose not to seek help. Unfortunately, mental health issues don’t just go on their own. If left untreated, they can result in panic attacks, substance abuse, poor quality of life, and suicidal thoughts. This explains the 6,261 veterans suicide deaths in 2019. If you are a veteran or know one who is struggling with mental health issues, here is a valuable resource to guide them in seeking the right treatment.
Veteran’s Mental Health Issues
Transitioning from military to civilian life is usually difficult for veterans. Some of them joined the army as soon as they became adults and spent most of their adult life serving the country. So taking them out of this culture can significantly affect their lives.
When serving, soldiers usually have a strong structure of support from their colleagues, but once they join civilian life, they have to learn how to figure out life independently. Veterans also experience a series of emotions in response to surviving traumatic experiences like watching their colleagues die or constantly being under attack.
The first change that may show up after leaving the army is sleep difficulties. Military lifestyle includes continuous operations when in training and deployment. As a result, about 60% of service members previously deployed sleep for less than six hours every night. Adjusting to a new sleep cycle becomes a struggle. Sleep problems are only the beginning.
Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
Over 500,000 U.S. veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan in the past 13 years screened positive for post-traumatic stress disorder. PTSD is a mental health illness that develops after a person experiences a life-threatening traumatic event.
Your nervous system responds in two ways when you undergo a stressful event. The first response is mobilization, during which your heartbeat increases, muscles tighten, and blood pressure rises to strengthen your body to defend yourself. After the stressful event, the body relaxes, and your heartbeat and blood pressure return to normal.
But if you experience more stress than your body can manage, it leads to immobilization. In this case, your nervous system fails to return to a normal state of balance even after the traumatic experience passes. This is what leads to post-traumatic stress disorder. You will need professional assistance to transition out of this mental struggle. Here are some symptoms to help you know if your loved one has PTSD.
Recurring Distressing Memories
Some veterans start to have recurring thoughts, nightmares, and flashbacks of traumatic events. They feel as if they are experiencing the event at the moment, which can cause heart palpitations, uncontrollable shaking, and panic attacks. Images, smells, and sounds can trigger this reaction.
Avoiding Things That Remind Them of Traumatic Experiences
Other veterans avoid places, people, or things they associate with bad memories. Such a person may start withdrawing from family meetings, avoid big crowds, and lose interest in activities they previously loved. Most of them forgo therapy to avoid discussing the incident.
Negative Moods and Thoughts
Veterans struggling with PTSD may experience persistent negative emotions. Some start to feel bad about themselves, which leads to guilt, fear, and shame. Others develop negative feelings toward their loved ones. Such a person may find it challenging to establish trust or feel genuinely happy.
PTSD results in hyperarousal, whereby the person always stays on guard and feels uneasy, especially in unfamiliar situations. Such people will pick a seat facing a door in restaurants and always look for dangerous people and objects that prevent them from living in the moment.
Depression is a mood disorder that affects a person’s behavior, thinking, and feelings. Veterans may experience depression once they lose someone close to them in their unit. Service members may also suffer depression if they develop a physical disability while on duty. The main symptom of depression is sadness that lasts for more than a week. It can interfere with your daily life and affect your sleeping patterns and appetite. Other symptoms of depression include:
- Social isolation
- Weight gain or loss
- Lack of energy
- Feelings of hopelessness
- Suicidal thoughts
- Poor memory
Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI)
Over 450,000 U.S. service members suffered from traumatic brain injury (TBI) between 2001 and 2021. TBI is a stressful brain injury caused by an external force that can lead to long-term mental disorders.
Blasts, explosions, falls, and motor vehicle crashes, often experienced by service members, cause violent head movements, resulting in TBI. These can disrupt the brain’s normal functioning, leading to confusion and loss of consciousness. Since the injury happens internally, it might be hard to tell how badly you are hurt until the symptoms become chronic. The common symptoms of TBI include:
- Ringing sounds in the ears
- Persistent headaches
- Slowness in thinking
- Blurred vision
- Poor impulse control
- Impaired judgment
- Sensitivity to light and touch
- Poor coordination
- Repeated vomiting and nausea
Approximately 4.8% of veterans also struggle with anxiety disorder. Anxiety is excessive worry and fear that affects your ability to function. Transitioning from military to civilian life brings many uncertainties that lead to anxiety. When deployed, service members carry a lot on their backs. If someone constantly worries for at least six months, they could suffer from a generalized anxiety disorder.
When you experience severe anxiety, it could lead to panic attacks, characterized by repeated short episodes of intense fear. Veterans also suffer from a social anxiety disorder, where they fear experiencing rejection or judgment from society. Others may develop phobias to specific objects or situations like driving, flying, heights, or even public transportation. Common signs of anxiety include:
- Chest pains
- Numb feelings
- Stomachaches and nausea
- Pounding heart
Why Veterans Fear to Seek Mental Health Treatment
Unfortunately, only 50% of veterans struggling with mental health illnesses receive treatment. Strength and independence are valuable aspects of military life as a service member. So, when a problem arises, most veterans feel they can handle it independently. The focus on strength and toughness promoted in the military may also make them feel ashamed to seek help.
Stigma is another factor that keeps veterans from seeking help. Some people associate mental health illnesses with weaknesses. However, it’s good to note that mental health illnesses can affect anyone irrespective of age, race, status, sexual orientation, or physique. It’s not a result of personal weaknesses but exposure to environmental and biological factors.
Others fail to disclose their illnesses for fear of losing custody and rights of access to their children or their work. But ignoring treatment could worsen the condition, leading to worse outcomes. Some have a false assumption that mental health treatments don’t work. While some veterans are willing to take risks and seek help, they might not know where to get help.
Ignore the misinformation, educate yourself about mental health, and get help. If you believe your loved one is experiencing signs of mental health illnesses but are reluctant to seek help, intervene. Talk to the person about their behaviors with a caring attitude, and give them a few examples of how the mental issues affect their quality of life. Encourage them to seek help and assure them that you will walk with them throughout the journey. If they are rebellious, you can seek professional intervention. The goal is to convince them to start treatment as soon as possible since delays could impair their recovery and even affect the well-being of those close to them.
Veterans’ Mental Illnesses Health Treatment
Recovering from mental health illnesses will require professional treatment. Once you visit a mental health treatment facility, the doctor will start by doing a physical examination, lab tests, and psychological evaluation to diagnose your illness. Answer questions honestly to help determine the most appropriate treatment method for your case.
For veterans suffering from severe mental health issues, the doctor may advise that you consider an inpatient treatment program. You reside within the treatment facility for this option to receive constant medical supervision. Others may require psychiatric hospitalization, especially when they are a danger to themselves or others. They receive emergency care like stabilization, close monitoring, and medication. Veterans with mild illnesses can opt for outpatient treatment. The client visits the treatment center for a few hours on certain days and then heads home. Expect the following treatments.
Your doctor may administer medications to help you manage mental illnesses’ symptoms. Antidepressants are some of the most commonly prescribed psychiatric medications. They treat depression, anxiety, and insomnia. They can also help manage feelings of hopelessness, sadness, and difficulty concentrating.
You may also need to take anti-anxiety medication to reduce panic attacks, extreme worry, and fear. They create a sense of calmness that also help with insomnia. People with bipolar disorder will need to use mood stabilizers.
Antipsychotic medications help restore your brain’s chemical balance, reducing psychosis symptoms. You might also need stimulants if you struggle with attention deficit or hyperactivity. Veterans experiencing severe sleep problems will have to take sleeping pills.
Based on a research, about 50% of people struggling with depression and anxiety recorded measurable improvements after eight psychotherapy sessions. This is a talk therapy that helps veterans cope with traumas.
You will likely undergo individual therapy, where you have a one-on-one session with your counselor to address unresolved traumas, feelings, and thoughts. Most veterans also take part in group therapy, where you meet with people going through similar issues to share experiences and coping mechanisms.
Your family members will also need to accompany you for family therapy sessions. This will help improve troubled relationships and resolve conflicts within a family. Your loved ones will also learn how to support you in the recovery journey. Here are some of the psychological techniques that your counselor may use to help you and your family.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
This therapy helps clients understand their thoughts and feelings and how they impact behavior. It helps treat depression, anxiety, and substance use disorder.
Dialectical Behavioral Therapy
For veterans who experience intense negative emotions, dialectical behavioral therapy will help them change their thinking patterns and accept things they can’t change.
Psychodynamic therapy helps you recognize, acknowledge, understand, and overcome negative feelings. It helps builds a sense of self-worth and improves relationships.
This form of therapy encourages the client to vent. Through various therapeutic interventions, the counselor coaches you on healthier ways to cope with difficult situations.
Substance Misuse Treatment
More than one in 10 veterans suffer from substance use disorder. The stressful nature of deployment and traumas pushes them to abuse drugs to mask their mental health illnesses. Drugs can interfere with mental health illness treatment. You will need to undergo detox to flush out the toxins and therapy to address the psychological aspect of drug abuse.
Join a support group to interact with people who best understand your situation. You can join a 12-step program where you must complete 12 positive steps to mental health. Support groups will help you feel less lonely, keep you motivated to recover, and give you access to mental health learning resources.
Within the treatment sessions, your doctor should help you develop a self-care plan to maintain a healthy mental state when out of the treatment facility. These may include proper diet, physical activities, and good sleep patterns. They may also encourage you to socialize more and engage in activities like solving puzzles, reading books, and watching movies that inspire you.
Start Your Recovery Journey Today
Veterans have been trained to stay strong and endure in all circumstances. But when it comes to mental health illnesses, you will find strength and purpose in life by seeking help. It’s possible to recover from mental health problems with the right treatment plans and support. If you are searching for additional help and resources on mental health treatment, visit VeteransRehab.org.