Military Veterans and Mental Health

Many people wrongfully believe that Veterans only seek out therapy because they struggle with PTSD due to some exposure to combat. This is an assumption in the general public and one that is just not true. While there are Veterans for which this is the case, many of the Veterans I see in my practice as a clinical psychologist are dealing with major depression or anxiety due to other life challenges. 

These issues may range from relationship and marriage problems to difficulty transitioning to civilian life, as well as problems surrounding money and work. Additionally, many of the Veterans have indeed experienced trauma, but often it is actually due to childhood and family trauma. Therapy can start the path to healing. No matter the source of their trauma, I believe therapy can help Veterans start to heal. 

The first and most important benefit of therapy is that they have a place to vent—a place to tell their story. There is nothing more powerful for healing than sharing our stories. It helps Veterans find the root cause of their problem while finding solutions to address those challenges. 

Therapy helps Veterans better understand their inherent strengths and use those strengths to improve their lives. Therapy also helps Veterans see that going to therapy does not mean we are “weak,” but instead that we are brave for facing our challenges head on. When I tell Veterans that therapy is harder than any training they ever had, suddenly they want to take you up on the challenge. Funny how that works.

Ongoing stigma holds some Veterans back. In addition to the perception that they will be seen as weak, one of the greatest barriers Veterans face in receiving mental health care is the ongoing stigma around getting therapy. Veterans often express their concern over labels, such as “crazy” and “mental health patients,” as well as military attitudes (e.g., “suck it up”) fostering feelings of weakness and failure. Unfortunately, this leads to many Veterans assuming they are not “sick enough” to get therapy because their situation is “not that bad.” 

The support of family members and friends can be invaluable. One of the greatest support systems many Veterans have is their family members and loved ones, including fellow Veterans. 

Simply listening without judgment is one way to help a Veteran loved one. Another way friends and relatives can be supportive is to be on the lookout for common signs that the Veteran is dealing with depression or anxiety: withdrawing socially, constant irritability, increased sleep or sleep deficits, heavy substance use or abuse, feeling constantly on edge or having anger outbursts even regarding minor issues.

Lastly, I think it is important that family and loved ones continue to encourage the Veteran to seek help, even if that means simply finding a support group with other Veterans. One of the things I have been most impressed with is that in the last several years, there have been a growing number of groups, organizations, and companies to support Veterans. Families should take the time to learn about these resources and not be afraid to suggest them.

Tools and coping mechanisms for Veterans

Ultimately, though, it is the Veteran’s decision to seek out ways to feel better. 

One of the best tools that Veterans can use to support their mental health is to find ways to be around other Veterans. While it is not therapy, it does provide Veterans with a sense of purpose they often lack after separating from the service. Being around other Veterans also helps give them that crucial sense of comradery they experienced while in the service. 

The other best tool is, simply, therapy. Veterans need to get past the stigma that therapy is for the “weak.” For me, therapy is not just about overcoming PTSD, depression, or anxiety symptoms. For me, therapy is about all of those things and also figuring out what “makes you tick.” 

With this information, Veterans can then create their own playbook of strategies that will help them cope with the world and create a meaningful life.

Contributed by: Dr. Carlos Garcia

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