Just in time for Memorial Day, we at Therapy Hive, and mental health professionals across our nation, are discussing what more we can do to protect and provide for veterans mental health. The statistics for veterans are staggering. 30% of current active duty and reserve military personnel who are deployed have active mental health conditions that require treatment, such as depression, anxiety, or PTSD. Less than 50% of the returning veterans who have a need for mental health care receive treatment. The VA estimates that 22 veterans die to suicide every day. Substance use and abuse is higher in the veteran population as well, with abuse of prescription pain pills occurring higher than in a civilian population. Almost half of active duty military report binge drinking, with higher rates of alcohol addiction in veterans, particularly those who have seen combat.
There is an enormous need to care for our veterans, and honor those who have served. Those who are returning to civilian life may struggle to adjust to the differences that are contrasted to military life. For those veterans who enlisted at age 18, they may not have the necessary life skills to navigate veteran assistance services – or even to recognize when mental health needs occur. There are also stigmas and experiences of shame that must be overcome, and while there has been an increase in conversation about veteran mental health care, there is still much to do.
In addition to mental health needs, returning veterans may also have physical health needs. Many veterans have experienced a TBI, or Traumatic Brain Injury. This specific type of injury, which occurs when there has been a violent blow or outside force to the skull, has been correlated with depression, suicidality, and substance abuse, as well as violent impulses. The combination of physical and mental trauma is complex, and becomes even more complex when there is a major life adjustment, such as a return to civilian life. We need to be more active in remembering not just those who died in combat, but those who have served and are returning from this service with true needs.
Thankfully, there has been progress. Increasing conversations about mental health, and the need for treatment, has helped decrease the stigma and barriers that a veteran may feel. Programs such as Mental Health First Aid help teach friends and family members how to support and help their veteran. There is increasing funding and research for understanding the complexities of trauma and mental health, and the Department of Veterans Affairs has an entire resource page full of the research and the supports for PTSD.
Closer to home, there is more that we can do as well. Having open conversations about mental health, coping, and treatment. For those who may be worried about safety, talking with a therapist about a safety plan, or an inventory of substances and weapons in the home can help decrease access to a lethal means of suicide. The right kind of treatment, which may include a combination of talk therapy, medication, and trauma specific care can be difficult to access, but it is with the right supports and ongoing conversations that we can begin to address the statistics that are stacked against veterans.