Ways to Support Our Veterans’ Mental Health

Each year on November 11, we honor the service and sacrifice of those who have served in our armed forces. Now called Veterans Day in the United States, the day was originally called Armistice Day and marked the official end of the hostilities of World War I. Armistice Day is still recognized across the world in countries that remember the anniversary of the end of World War I.

Many of those who have served in our armed forces have been affected by their service – some in obvious ways, and others in ways that are not readily apparent. The unique and challenging lives led by our military service members can lead to a variety of mental health challenges, including anxiety, depression, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and traumatic brain injury. Some veterans may be suffering from one or more of these conditions at the same time. Here are some ways that you can support veterans in your life who may be dealing with these challenges.

Anxiety is a normal response to stress, and can have some positive benefits. It can help you deal with a stressful situation at the office, or study harder for an exam, or stay focused on an important task. However, when anxiety lasts too long, becomes excessive, or doesn’t fit the circumstances, it can cause problems

Some veterans develop anxiety as a result of severely traumatic situations or life-threatening events; others can develop anxiety when returning to civilian life, especially if they have difficulty “turning off” strategies and behaviors that may have been essential to survival when they were deployed. Anxiety affects many veterans, and can manifest as a general sense of unease or even a full-fledged panic attack.

How can I help?
You can be available if/when a veteran is in crisis. You can let them know you are there for them, and offer your support and assistance

In the general population, depression is one of the more common mental health issues; in the veteran population, the incidence of major depressive disorders is roughly 10 percent. Symptoms of depression can include a persistently sad or irritable mood; changes in sleep, energy, or appetite; problems with memory or concentration; loss of interest in activities once enjoyed; recurrent thoughts of self-harm, death, or suicide. A veteran struggling with depression may be more likely to engage in substance abuse, or to consider or attempt suicide.

How can I help?
If a veteran is severely depressed or suicidal, get them help immediately. This must be taken seriously. If a veteran in your life is struggling with depression, you can assist them in finding helpful resources that can connect them with the mental health services that they need. The Veterans Administration(https://www.va.gov/health-care/health-needs-conditions/mental-health/) may be able to help, as can the National Alliance on Mental Illness (https://www.nami.org/Your-Journey/Veterans-Active-Duty).

You can also help a veteran struggling with depression by helping them with day-to-day tasks they are having difficulty with, such as planning meals, running errands, or even tidying up the house.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is not unique to the military, but the incidence within the military is far higher than within the civilian population. A JAMA Psychiatry study found that veterans have a 15 times higher incidence of PTSD than do civilians. This is chiefly due to the particular stresses faced by military members.

PTSD can manifest in many ways, including anger, being jumpy, having trouble sleeping, nightmares, flashbacks, and substance abuse.

How can I help?
If you notice that a friend, coworker, or family member is showing signs of PTSD, please refer them to a professional for care. PTSD is a significant risk factor for suicide, especially among veterans, so don’t wait. Get them immediate care.

Get support. Neither you nor the veteran(s) in your life need to do this on your own. There are numerous organizations which provide referrals or treatment to veterans who suffer from PTSD. For example, you can find support and information at the National Center for PTSD (https://www.ptsd.va.gov/), which is run by the VA.

For those experiencing PTSD, everyday events can be triggers. This can be especially true for things like fireworks displays. If you can find out scheduling information for local fireworks displays, you can help notify local veterans organizations. Advance notice can help veterans prepare and cope with whatever symptoms may arise, rather than being caught off guard.

Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) is considered by many to be the defining or signature injury of the wars of the last twenty years. This is chiefly due to the prevalence of explosives-driven injuries. It is important to note, however, that there is a high prevalence of TBI in older veterans – often due to falls – which results in a high level of disability.

Symptoms of TBI can include headaches, fatigue or drowsiness, memory problems, and mood changes or mood swings. A TBI may not be immediately visible, and even minor or “mild” TBI can cause significant impairments in different areas of a veteran’s life.

How can I help?
Remember that a TBI may not manifest with symptoms right away. Pay attention to changes in mood, or memory issues; these could be the result of depression, or a sign of a TBI. If you see these signs, refer the veteran to professional care.

Volunteer to work with veterans who have suffered TBI. There are numerous organizations, such as Brainline Military and Disabled American Veterans, which support veterans dealing with TBI. You could volunteer to work with an organization which trains service dogs for veterans, such as ProjectHEAL. Or, you could volunteer to help veterans with daily living tasks by volunteering at veterans homes, or the VA.

Our veterans face unique challenges, both during their time of service, and once they have separated from service. While some of these challenges may be quite intense, it is important to remember that neither you nor they need to try to do it all on your own. There are resources available in your community and online that you can reach out to for help or information. Remember: You are not alone.

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