The United States’ history of honoring veterans’ sacrifices dates back to the Revolutionary War, when our country began offering veterans pensions and direct medical care — structures that remain in place, for the most part. Today, veterans can access a broad array of social services including housing support, medical support, home loans, and specialized mental health care.
There are about 18 million veterans in the United States. It’s estimated that about 20 percent of them may have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or depression, significantly more than the general population (at about four percent). These conditions, if left untreated, can have long-lasting negative effects on work, relationships, and overall quality of life.
Challenges to Veterans’ Mental Health
For veterans, mental health issues can develop for a variety of reasons. Spending long stretches of time away from friends and family can be a challenge. In addition, soldiers face the stressors of combat, witnessing and participating in traumatic events, and making emotionally difficult decisions in the field. The most common mental health diagnoses are:
- PTSD, in which a person may experience flashbacks, nightmares, or severe anxiety. The onset of PTSD can be immediate or can occur years after a given event.
- Depression, a mood disorder resulting in persistent feelings of sadness. It can present as loss of interest or pleasure in activities, tiredness, or even feelings of guilt.
- Anxiety, which is excessive worry about everyday situations. It can manifest itself as feeling nervous, experiencing an increased sense of danger, having trouble sleeping, avoiding things that may trigger anxiety, and, sometimes, panic attacks.
For some, serving in the military can cause moral injury because their actions conflict with their personal core values, especially in combat. Values such as justice, fairness, and loyalty can be challenged on the field, causing feelings of guilt and shame and leading to mental health difficulties when returning to civilian life.
Robert McMahon, mayor of Media Borough in Delaware County, is a Vietnam War veteran who has spent the past 20 years supporting fellow veterans. “I came home from an unpopular war in 1969, and there were not many resources available then. It was a challenge because I had nobody to talk to — so I did my best to build a life. I supported myself by getting involved with my community through coaching softball, getting on [borough] council, and supporting my family, but outside support was hard to come by,” McMahon says.
In 2021, Sherman Gillums, Jr., former chief strategy officer of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), was interviewed about veteran mental health. Drawing on his 12 years of service in the U.S. Marines, Gillums shared, “The losses veterans experience aren’t just physical ones, like missing limbs or broken bodies; there is an emotional loss as well. There is also a cost to families who are impacted. There is a cost to children who grow up with a parent who hasn’t adjusted well to returning to the civilian sphere. There is a cost to their children’s children as trauma is passed down. Hope is born from seeing previous generations make it through and heal.”
For many veterans, mental illness carries a stigma that can keep them from seeking support. They might fear that treatment might not work, that they might be perceived as weak, or even that the treatment process might be too challenging.
Understanding how their mental health needs may differ from those of the general population is important to ensuring that veterans receive treatment and support.
Ways to Support Veterans
If a loved one in your life is a veteran, it’s important to understand that their experiences on active duty may have been traumatic. Give them time to process those experiences, but gently encourage them to seek professional help if they’re struggling.
Other ways to support veterans include:
- Sending a personalized card to a veteran to thank them for their service. The Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) website enables visitors to choose a design and message, which the VFW then prints and delivers to a hospitalized veteran.
- Volunteering for an organization that provides veterans with job training, basic needs, or opportunities to interact with other veterans.
- Donating your car to Vehicles for Veterans, or donating clothes and household items to organizations like Purple Heart or Green Drop that support veterans and their families.
- Educating yourself about the signs of PTSD, depression, and anxiety so you can be prepared to encourage a friend or loved one to get the care they need.
“Many of our veterans experience a lost sense of purpose when they leave the military,” says Gillums in his interview. “To help combat suicide and provide hope, we need to remind them that the military is not their whole identity, and they have many reasons to live outside of their service.”
Mayor McMahon has made it his mission in recent years to not only support veterans, but to make sure they know about the resources available. “I started going to the VA for care about a year ago, and since then I have learned about all the resources and services available to me. I am just scratching the surface, but every veteran, no matter their service, needs to know that the VA is a place they can go. Veterans need support, and we need to encourage each other when we can,” McMahon says.
Veterans can get support through organizations like:
- Philadelphia Regional Office of Veteran Affairs
- Purple Heart Foundation
- Veterans Multi-Service Center
- Pennsylvania Department of Military and Veterans Affairs
- Green Drop
If You Need Help
If you or someone you know needs support, call the 24-Hour Crisis Intervention Service Helpline at 215-686-4420 or call or text the new 988. For more information about mental health and where to find help, visit ibx.com/knowyourmind.