Mental Health of Veterans: Addressing the Lingering Impact of War | Health News from the Healthiest Communities
March 20, 2023 marked two decades since the US invasion of Iraq, with millions of Americans answering the call to serve our nation in uniform over the past 20 years. Yet even though U.S. forces are no longer actively fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, our country faces an unmet need, with too many service members facing barriers accessing mental health care.
Failing to meet the mental health needs of veterans could cost lives. A 2021 report by Brown University’s Costs of War project estimated that more than 30,000 active duty personnel and veterans of post-9/11 wars had died by suicide. This is four times the number lost in combat.
Another risk that can arise is that veterans abuse substances to deal with the invisible wounds of war. But access to treatment for substance use disorders remains a challenge, with veterans too often facing unacceptable delays when trying to get help.
But even veterans with access to mental health resources can struggle to accept the help they deserve. Military culture often emphasizes toughness and self-reliance, leaving some veterans worried about how they might be perceived if they seek care. Wounded Warrior Project is offering post-9/11 veterans free mental health support, but many are still refusing, thinking they could be taking resources from someone who needs it most.
These reasons explain why a multifaceted approach that increases awareness, education and access to care for our veterans is essential.
Mental health problems are more common than physical injuries
According to the Wounded Warrior Project’s annual Warrior Survey, mental health issues accounted for three of the four most common service-related injuries among veterans registered with the nonprofit who served on 9/11 or afterwards, and 3 out of 4 of these veterans reported post-traumatic stress disorder. According to the survey, similar proportions of respondents said they had suffered from anxiety and depression, and half of veterans reported moderate to severe symptoms of two or more mental health conditions at the time of the survey.
These conditions require the same urgency as a physical injury. Mental health issues can become difficult to overcome and manage when left untreated and can have long-term social, emotional, and cognitive consequences. The impact can prevent veterans from fully realizing their professional and personal future and hamper their ability to thrive after service.
Veteran families deserve resources too
Military families are not immune to the emotional toll of war. Family members and close friends are often among the first people veterans turn to during their difficulties in transitioning from military service. The pressure to provide this support can affect the well-being of loved ones, especially those supporting seriously injured veterans with long-term care needs.
Mental health resources must be accessible to veteran caregivers and their loved ones to cope with the psychological impact of military service. But there are not enough mental health care providers to meet this demand. The Department of Health and Human Services estimates that 163 million Americans live in areas where there is a shortage of mental health care providers.
Some veterans service organizations fill the void by providing family members with access to mental health support and resources. Wounded Warrior Project, for example, serves family members and caregivers through programs like WWP Talk, where they can participate in weekly calls focused on setting goals and building coping skills.
Partnerships are another way to support caregivers and families. An example: the Hidden Helpers Coalition, supported by the White House’s Joining Forces initiative, aims to meet the needs of children caring for injured veterans. More than 70 organizations, including nonprofits and businesses, are part of the coalition. Efforts like this help military families learn skills, access tools, and find support for their mental well-being.
Find Your Role in Supporting Veteran Mental Health
You don’t have to be a veterans service organization to support your employees, neighbors, or friends with military ties. Understanding veterans’ issues can increase your sensitivity and help you advocate for veterans’ interests and mental health needs.
Policymakers can drive legislation, funding, and advocacy efforts to ensure veterans have access to the quality of care they deserve. In January, backed by federal legislation, the Department of Veterans Affairs announced access to free crisis care for veterans struggling with suicide, whether or not they are registered with the VA.
Business leaders can also create a culture of support for military families within their company and community. The Johnson & Johnson Veterans Leadership Council, for example, develops programs and initiatives to help veterans reach their full potential while addressing the unique health and wellness needs of the military community. CSX, a national transportation leader, not only focuses on hiring veterans, but further connects employees and community members with veterans to raise critical funds and raise public awareness through its Pride in Service initiative.
Public education can also break down stereotypes and misconceptions about veteran mental health and foster open and informative conversations that help normalize mental health care seeking. For Veterans Day 2021, the Ad Council and the VA collaborated on a campaign called “Don’t Wait, Reach Out” to de-stigmatize requests for help. Wounded Warrior Project also runs social media campaigns using #CombatStigma to raise awareness and reduce barriers to seeking help. Participating in these conversations sends a powerful message of support and helps resources reach those in need.
At the same time, it is essential that mental health professionals share best practices for caring for groups with unique experiences, such as veterans. This prompted the creation of the Warrior Care Network, a network of mental and brain health experts specializing in the treatment of veterans. An intensive two-week outpatient program for post-traumatic stress disorder comes with follow-up and peer support, providing a condensed treatment model with high completion rates and significant symptom reduction of PTSD. This innovative model allows veterans to feel better faster and maintain long-term wellness gains.
Everyone can play a role in supporting the mental health of Veterans. Together, we can improve how we care for those who answer the call of duty to our nation. Through these efforts, we are repaying our debt to the individuals and families who have sacrificed so much on our behalf.
If you are a veteran struggling with suicidal thoughts, dial 988 or text 838255 to contact the Veterans Crisis Line. For more information on resources available from the Wounded Warrior Project, visit blessedwarriorproject.org.