Written by: Vanessa Ebonni, Veterans Case Manager
In 2014, 20 veterans died by suicide each day, which is why it is very important for mental healthcare service providers to be trained on the common mental illnesses of veterans and how best to assist them. One of the most important steps mental health providers can take in understanding a veteran is learning about their veteran status and military history. While it may seem obvious, in order to serve veterans, you must first identify whether someone is a veteran or the family member of a veteran. Some veterans will not readily self-identify as a “veteran.” It is recommended that you directly inquire whether a person served in the military rather than asking if they are a veteran. Learning the military culture is also another way to be able to appropriately offer guidance and assistance to veterans.
Members of the military and their families have their own culture with a shared set of values and beliefs. Military culture emphasizes a number of qualities including hierarchy, discipline, prioritizing the group over the individual, teamwork, and comradery. Often times, the military culture promotes conformity to stereotypical masculine norms such as self-reliance, emotional control, stoicism, and dominancy that can contribute to stress as well as deter someone from seeking mental health treatment. The most commonly reported mental health conditions of veterans include post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, substance use disorders, and traumatic brain injuries (TBI).
What is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)?
PTSD is one the more commonly known mental illnesses that veterans face due to the nature of their job. This anxiety disorder is most associated with combat, sexual/physical trauma, assault, terrorist attacks, accidents, natural disasters, etc. Symptoms of PTSD include reliving the event, avoiding stressful situations that remind the veteran of their trauma, experiencing negative changes in beliefs and feelings, and feelings of hyper sexuality. It is important to note that not everyone experiences PTSD after a traumatic event.
What are Depressive Disorders?
Depressive disorders commonly occur after an individual goes through a traumatic event. It is characterized by feeling sad or down more often than not for a period lasting longer than 2 weeks, lack of interest in things you once enjoyed, changes in sleeping and eating habits, difficulty focusing, feeling hopeless, and thoughts of suicide or self-harm. For some, depression and PTSD can be mental health disorders that occur simultaneously. Sufferers of PTSD are 3 to 5 times more likely to experience depression compared to those without symptoms of PTSD, according to a national survey.
What are Substance Use Disorders?
The stresses of deployments and the unique culture of the military offer both risks and protective factors related to substance use among active duty personnel. More than one in ten veterans have been diagnosed with a substance use disorder, slightly higher than the general population. Reported rates of illegal drug use increase when active duty personnel leave military service. Marijuana accounts for the vast majority of illegal drug use among veterans with 3.5% reporting use, and 1.7% reporting use of illegal drugs other than marijuana in a 1-month period. From 2002 to 2009, cannabis use disorders increased more than 50% among veterans treated by the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) system. Alcohol use disorders are the most prevalent form of substance use disorders among military personnel. It is challenging to compare overall rates to the non-military population because service personnel tend to be younger and have a higher percentage of males, putting them at greater risk in general. However, increased combat exposure involving violent and traumatic experiences by those who serve result in an increased risk of problematic drinking.
What are Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBI)
A TBI refers to a traumatically induced head injury by an external force that disrupts normal brain functioning resulting in a number of symptoms such as loss of consciousness, alteration in mental state (e.g., seeing stars), memory impairment, and neurological disorders (e.g. loss of balance). As many as 78% of returning Veterans have suffered traumatic brain injuries, and many of these Veterans have comorbid psychiatric disorders like depression and PTSD. TBI treatment focuses on the most problematic symptoms and may include medication, learning strategies to manage specific problems, rehabilitation therapies (i.e. physical, occupational, and speech-language therapy), and assistive devices.
As a veteran, the most important thing to know is that you are not alone, and there are many people who want to support you on your road to recovery. Maintain a strong body and mind by taking care of yourself and reaching out to mental health professionals and other veterans for peer support when you feel like you are struggling. Recognize that you will feel frustrated sometimes while returning to civilian life, but frustration is normal during this transition. In fact, frustration is a sign that you are adjusting and growing stronger. If you find yourself growing more frustrated or isolated over time, talk to a health professional about whether mental health care can help you increase your resilience.
About the Author:
Vanessa Ebonni went to The State University of New York graduating with a BA in Sociology with a minor in Psychology. She moved to Kentucky in 2019 after graduating, In her spare time she enjoys travelling, watching tv and playing with her two cats.