Mental Health Care of American Veterans in Question

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Debilitating mental illnesses like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, anxiety and suicidal behavior are becoming more rampant  among our soldiers and veterans, and the ability of our military’s medical system to address complex mental issues has come into question.

Tragic events like the recent murder of Chris Kyle, a 38-year-old former Navy Seal by a fellow veteran, have further put into question our country’s efforts at assessing and managing the effects of war on our soldiers’ mental health.

A recently released study on veteran suicidality has also received wide news coverage. The Veterans Affairs study notes that, on average, 22 vets commit suicide every day – a higher number than reported  in previous years.

According to the RAND Invisible Wounds of War Study, approximately 1.6 million US troops have been deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq since October 2001. In a study of 1,965 previously deployed individuals, as many as 14% of those soldiers returned with symptoms of PTSD, and 14% returned with symptoms of depression according to a 2008 RAND testimony. In addition, 19% reported a probable traumatic brain injury (TBI) during deployment. Only half of those veterans reporting a TBI actually sought help from a physician or mental health provider.

The rates of suicides are especially prominent among Vietnam vets and female vets. Half of the deaths were caused by an intentional drug overdose or poisoning. Senator Bernie Sanders, the chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, called these findings “unacceptable.”

“What we’re seeing is an extraordinary tragedy which speaks to the horror of war and the need for us to do a much better job in assisting our soldiers and their families after they return home,” Sanders noted on his website. He intends to work “aggressively with the Department of Veterans Affairs to address this crisis.”

Kyle, a highly decorated veteran of the Iraq War and New York Times best-selling author, had himself been a strong advocate for the improvement of mental health services and mental health awareness for veterans. He was gunned down by 35-year-old Eddie Ray Routh, a former Marine who served in Iraq and Haiti. Kyle was attempting to help Routh adjust to life back in the United States when Routh fatally shot Kyle and a second man at point-blank range. Police suspect that he “may have been suffering from some type of mental illness,” which further pushes the issue of properly finding and treating war-induced mental illness.

Post-traumatic stress disorder is often associated with people who deal with high-stress situations. This disorder is not only prominent among soldiers, but also firefighters, police officers, and victims of sexual assault. Between 8% and 10% of Americans will experience post-traumatic stress during their lifetimes; women are twice as likely to experience PTSD than men.

Symptoms of PTSD can include:

  • Flashbacks or bad dreams
  • Emotional numbness, detachment
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Outbursts of anger or irritability
  • Insomnia
  • Hypervigilance
  • Intense guilt or worry
  • Feelings of helplessness or worthlessness
  • Sense of a foreshortened future/impending death

If you or a family member experience these symptoms for at least one month, see a mental health professional immediately.

If you are concerned about a family member who is a veteran or has returned from military service, Bob Livingstone, psychotherapist and Sharecare contributor, notes that “there are verbal hints that could indicate suicidal thoughts or plans. These include phrases such as ‘I want you to know something, in case something happens to me’ or ‘I won’t trouble you anymore.’” Usually those who are suicidal may start throwing away important possessions or “expresses bizarre or unsettling thoughts on occasion.” Learn more on Sharecare’s Suicide and Suicidal Behavior topic page.

For more information, visit RAND Invisible Wounds of War Project, which includes information about recognizing mental health problems and provides advice on how to seek help.