Last Updated on March 4, 2019 by Valarie Ward
U.S. veterans have prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice – losing their lives in the defense of our country. While this dedication should be lauded, too many veterans are coming back to lives of mental anguish and despair. And too often, our veterans are experiencing mental illness, abusing substances, and even taking their lives when they return from abroad.
How many veterans are affected by mental disorders, including addiction? What are the consequences of a lack of treatment in these areas? And what can you do to help?
Veteran Mental Illness
While we typically associate Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) with veterans’ mental health, many vets are also suffering from depression. In fact, as the RAND corporation reports in their research on veterans’ mental health, “Approximately 18.5 percent of U.S. servicemembers who have returned from Afghanistan and Iraq currently have post-traumatic stress disorder or depression.”
Often, the symptoms of PTSD and depression are similar. The Department of Veteran Affairs (VA)’s website on mental health and suicide prevention lists warning signs of a mental disorder for friends and family. These include anxiety, hopelessness, and withdrawal from family and friends, and “increasing alcohol and drug misuse”.
PTSD brings additional symptoms including flashbacks; avoiding places, people, or thoughts that remind them of their trauma; tension; ease of startling; and trouble remembering details of the traumatic event.
RAND also notes a possible link to these mental conditions and homelessness in our returning veterans.
Co-Occurrence of PTSD and SUD in Veterans
Mental illnesses and Substance Abuse Disorder (SUD) in veterans are not independent issues; they are intricately linked. As the National Center for PTSD reports, “Almost 1/3 of Veterans seeking treatment for SUD also have PTSD and more than a quarter of Veterans with PTSD also have SUD.”
The National Institute of Drug Abuse’s webpage on drug abuse in the military explains this correlation further:
“Those with multiple deployments, combat exposure, and related injuries are at greatest risk of developing substance use problems. They are more apt to engage in new-onset heavy weekly drinking and binge drinking, to suffer alcohol- and drug-related problems, and start smoking or relapse to smoking.”
This is consistent with the general population’s link between mental illness and addiction. The National Institute of Drug Abuse also reports that half of those who abuse substances at some point in their lives will also experience a mental illness, and vice versa.
In veterans, addiction often begins at the doctor’s office with their prescription medication. Certain medications for pain often prescribed to veterans (especially those with injuries) can be addictive and subject to problems of tolerance, according to AddictionCenter. Further, medications for anxiety – commonly prescribed to those already suffering from a mental illness – can have the same effect.
This means that our veterans are at particular risk during our nation’s Opioid Crisis. Research from JAMA Internal Medicine found that 44% of their veteran research participants experienced chronic pain, and 15.1% of these veterans were using opiods for pain management.
The consequences of veteran mental illness are dire. According to the US Department of Veteran’s Affairs’ National Suicide Data Report, we lost more than 6,000 veterans to suicide each year between 2008 and 2016 – roughly 50,000 lives in less than a decade.
These suicides comprise a significant portion of the total number of lives we lose to suicide each year. We can compare this to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s calculation of 47,173 total suicides in the United States in 2017 – a sobering number on its own. This means veteran suicide accounts for roughly 12.7% of all suicides.
And we know that mental illness and suicide are closely related; the National Alliance on Mental Health reports that over 90% of deaths by suicide happen to those with a mental illness.
Veterans are 1.5x more likely to succumb to suicide than the general population. Of all veterans, those between 18 and 34 years old and living in the Western United States have a heightened risk of death by suicide.
Even while the number of veterans decreased by 4 million between 2005 and 2016, the number of suicides each year has remained around 6,000. This means that the rate of veteran suicide has increased significantly.
Further, this figure does not include the 902 suicides in 2016 by former Guard and Reserve members that were never federally activated.
The veterans in your life need extra support and care. As with anyone struggling with a mental illness, be sure to check up on them regularly and provide a safe, open line of communication in case they need to talk. You can also ensure that they have a support system including friends and family they can talk to, and a plan for medication and/or therapy if they need it.
If you want to help a veteran that may be struggling, this CNN article provides several ways to get involved, including sponsorship of a service dog and helping to build homes for veterans.
And if you are a US veteran struggling with your mental health – whether you are experiencing PTSD, depression, and/or abusing substances – know that you are not alone. Therapy and support can greatly increase your chances of leading a better life.
Start by contacting your local VA office, or contact the VA using one of these numbers.
If you need immediate support for your mental health, you are not alone. The Veteran’s Crisis Line is available for your use 24/7. Call 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255).