5 Ways You Can Support Veterans' Mental Health

By: Ingrid Herrera-Yee (NAMI)

Veterans Day is a day to remember and reflect on the sacrifices of our military veterans and also to thank them for their service. It’s a celebration that honors America's veterans for their patriotism and willingness to offer their lives for the common good.

Veterans in this country come from different eras, fought in different battles, used different weaponry and wore different uniforms, but they all share a common experience: the experience of training, moving from place to place, fighting (or training to fight) and living a life that is ever changing.

Due to the unique and sometimes challenging lifestyle inherent to military life, often our veterans experience mental health challenges, such as PTSD, TBI or depression. Here are five ways you can help to support our veterans:

1. Understand Suicide

On average, 22 veterans a day die by suicide. Nearly one in every five suicides nationally is a veteran—18-20% annually—compared with Census data that shows veterans make up about 10% of the U.S. adult population. According to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, up to 20% of military personnel who served in Iraq or Afghanistan experience PTSD each year. Unfortunately, the numbers are not showing any significant slowing. Our veterans are at risk and we as a nation need to support them.

  • Reach out to veterans through Veteran Support Organizations. Organizations such as IAVA, VFW and American Legion and others in your local community can be some of the strongest protective factors against suicide is social support. If a veteran feels connected to a community, has friends and people to turn to when they need help, they are less likely to die by suicide.
  • If a veteran tells you he is suicidal, take it seriously. Talk to them, encourage them and ask them to seek help from a mental health professional. Share the Veterans Crisis Line (1-800-273-8255) with them—it is available 24/7.

2. Understand PTSD

Traumatic events, such as military combat, assault and disasters can have long-lasting negative effects such as trouble sleeping, anger, nightmares, being jumpy and alcohol and drug abuse. When these troubles don't go away, it could be PTSD. Although PTSD is not unique to the military, it is important to note that in a JAMA Psychiatry study it was found that the rate of PTSD is 15 times higher among veterans than among civilians.

  • Reach out to organizations that specialize in treating and/or providing referrals to veterans who suffer from PTSD. The National Center for PTSD offers support, resources and information. You can refer a veteran you know or inform yourself so you can better support the veteran in your life.
  • Everyday events can be triggers. If you work or have knowledge of events where fireworks may be set off to celebrate an event, notify local veterans groups, the loud noise could trigger symptoms of PTSD in veterans. Having advanced knowledge of a fireworks display could help some veterans better prepare and cope with any symptoms that may arise.
  • If you notice that someone in your life, a friend, coworker, fellow student or family member has symptoms - refer them to a professional for care. Don’t wait, don’t be afraid to ask. PTSD is a risk factor for suicide.

3. Understand Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI)

Known as a “signature wound” of the post 9/11 wars, due to blasts from explosive devices. The high rate of TBI and blast-related concussion events resulting from current combat operations directly impacts the health and safety of individual service members. It’s also important to note that veterans may sustain TBIs throughout their lifespan, with the largest increase as the veterans enter into their 70s and 80s; these injuries are often caused by falls and result in high levels of disability. Symptoms can include headaches, fatigue or drowsiness, memory problems and mood changes and mood swings.

  • A TBI may not be noticeable at first, don’t assume that all wounds are visible. Memory problems or mood changes could be the result of depression or another mood disorder or it could be a traumatic brain injury. Even “mild” TBI’s can cause significant impairment in different areas of someone’s life. Don’t let the “mild” fool you.
  • Volunteer to work with veterans who have experienced TBI. You can offer help through an organization that trains service dogs, such as Project HEAL, or provide assistance with activities of daily living by volunteering at Veteran’s homes, the VA and more. There are many organizations (Disabled American Veterans, Brainline Military, etc.) that support a veteran who struggles with at TBI. Get informed and help if you can.

4. Understand Depression

Depression is one of the most common mental health conditions. Symptoms include persistently sad or irritable mood, changes in sleep, appetite, energy, problems with memory and concentration, lack of interest or pleasure in activities once enjoyed and recurrent thoughts of death or suicide.

A recent study found that the risk factors for suicide for U.S. veterans with depression differed in significant ways from those of the general population. Specifically, the risk for suicide generally increases with age, but in the veteran population, younger individuals are at the most risk. Veterans struggling with their diagnoses are more likely to commit suicide or battle with substance abuse. Among veterans treated by the Veterans Association between 2009 and 2013, about 10% had major depressive disorder.

  • You can help someone with depression by helping them accomplish tasks that are difficult from day to day. For example, you could assist with menu items for meals, or you could take them to the store if they have trouble with memorizing lists or driving.
  • Recommend helping resources and help with a mental health professional. NAMI offers many resources and information to help those in your life who may be struggling.
  • If a veteran is severely depressed and suicidal, get him or her help immediately. This is something that should be taken seriously.

5. Understand Anxiety

Feeling anxious is a normal reaction to stress. Sometimes it can be positive. For example, anxiety can help motivate you to deal with a tense situation in the office, study harder for an exam, handle a new situation, or stay focused on an important task. In general, it helps people cope. But when anxiety becomes excessive, doesn’t fit the situation or lasts a long time, it can get in the way of your everyday activities and may interfere with how you get along with others.

Some Veterans develop anxiety following severe trauma or a life-threatening event. For others, stressful life events such as transitioning from military to civilian life can cause anxiety disorders. It can be hard for some Veterans and Service members to “turn off” some of the strategies and behaviors that were necessary for military situations.

  • Anxiety affects many. It can manifest itself as a panic attack or overall sense of unease. You could help by being available if/when a veteran is in crisis. This could involve letting them know you are there, offering assistance and support.

 

Understanding and supporting the mental health needs of our veterans is a great way to reach out and thank them for their service. Find a tangible way to get involved not just on veteran’s day but every day.