Woman veteran talking to a therapist.

Understanding Veteran Mental Health Challenges and How to Get Support

Popular Categories

Meet with a Therapist
Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.
min read

Mental health issues among adults are rising across the U.S. — and while anyone can experience challenges with their mental health — veterans in particular are at increased risk, especially if they were deployed. 

If you or someone you know is a veteran in need of mental health support, know that help is available. Read on to get a better understanding of the common mental health challenges veterans face and why. Plus get tips and resources that can help you or a veteran loved one get connected to mental health support and care. 

Common mental health concerns among veterans 

The most frequently reported mental health challenges among veterans include post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, anxiety, attempting suicide/dying by suicide, substance use disorders, and traumatic brain injury (TBI). Here’s how common these are:

  • For veterans who served in either Iraq or Afghanistan, 20% suffer from either major depression or post-traumatic stress disorder
  • ~19.5% of veterans in these two categories have experienced a TBI. TBIs typically result from a violent blow or jolt to the head or body, or from an object that goes through brain tissue. 
  • Feeling heightened anxiety is also a mental health concern many veterans face, with 9.9% of veterans reporting elevated levels. 
  • Substance misuse is reported among veterans as well, with more than 1 in 10 being diagnosed with a substance use disorder
  • Suicide rates among veterans are at the highest level in recorded history, with annual deaths by suicide at over 6,000 veterans per year. Research has shown that veterans are at significantly increased risk of suicide during their first year outside of the military. 

If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health emergency, call 988 for the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. You can also find free resources here.

There are many reasons why veterans are at a higher risk of experiencing mental health challenges compared to the rest of the U.S. adult population. Read on to learn more. 

Why veterans face higher risks of mental health conditions 

Veterans have made significant sacrifices to serve and protect. Since September 11, 2001, 2.8 million active-duty American military personnel have been deployed overseas, with many experiencing combat. 

While general military service can lead to mental health conditions, veterans with combat and deployment experience are at a higher risk. This is because they face unique challenges that can negatively affect their mental health, including: 

Traumatic experiences

Those who serve overseas and in combat experience highly stressful and traumatic situations such as: 

  • Separation from loved ones and support systems
  • Stressors of combat (including seeing oneself and others in harm’s way, being attacked,  and/or seeing others attacked, wounded, or killed) 
  • Physical and emotional wounds and injuries

In response to seeing and surviving these traumatic events, veterans may have trouble concentrating and/or sleeping, relive traumatic events in their minds, misuse drugs and/or alcohol, or have thoughts of death or suicide. For some veterans, these feelings and behaviors may fade away as they adjust to civilian life. For others, they could lead to or be signs of a mental health issue. 

Challenges adjusting to civilian life

Leaving active military service and returning to civilian life poses challenges that can negatively impact veterans’ mental well-being. These challenges can include: 

  • Relating to people who do not know or understand what military personnel have experienced
  • Reconnecting with family and re-establishing a role in the family
  • Preparing to enter or reenter the workforce
  • Creating structure and establishing a routine

Adjusting to civilian life can lead to increased stress, anxiety, feelings of isolation, and mental health issues if veterans don’t have support to overcome these challenges. 

Stigma

Stigma refers to the negative social attitude attached to a characteristic of an individual. Stigma can keep veterans from seeking help for their mental health. This, in part, may be due to key aspects of military culture and identity, such as a desire to handle problems on one’s own. Veterans who perceive stigma toward mental health concerns may view getting help as a sign of weakness, be skeptical of the effectiveness of mental health care, or assume it won’t be helpful for them to seek care. 

In addition to stigma, concerns about re-experiencing traumatic events and wanting to avoid traumatic reminders may also deter veterans from seeking help. They may also fear that mental health professionals will lack understanding around their experiences and feelings, and therefore not see the benefits of professional help.  

Other barriers to mental health care 

The barriers to mental health care for veterans go beyond stigma. 

Even when veterans do want to seek mental health support, it’s not always easy to access. It can take weeks or even months to get an appointment with a mental health professional. When an appointment is available, it can be difficult for some veterans to take time out of their work schedule to attend it. Coordinating transportation to and from an appointment, if needed, can add another obstacle. 

Financial burdens may also act as a barrier. Veterans may have concerns about how mental health care will be covered by their insurance, and how much they’ll be responsible for out-of-pocket. These concerns can keep veterans from seeking help. 

How to support veterans experiencing mental health challenges 

Those who are closest to veterans are often the first to notice that they are facing a mental health challenge. Here’s what you can do to help a loved one who is a veteran in need of mental health support: 

Express your concerns and voice your support

It’s not always easy to talk about mental health. Expressing your concerns is important for letting your loved one know you care and support them, but jumping right into a conversation may blindside them or make them uncomfortable. It can help to first set a time to talk about your concerns, so your loved one feels prepared. 

Moreover, you don't need to ask about what happened — you can just let them know you are there for them and willing to help them seek further support if they decide they want it. 

Your loved one may not be ready to talk right away. It’s okay to keep trying to find a time to share your concerns with them. If you do have a discussion, it may take multiple conversations before they’re comfortable seeking care. It’s ultimately their call to get help. 

Share resources and options for professional help

Professional mental health care is available for veterans and their caregivers. Sharing the resources at the end of this article can help your loved one and all veterans get the mental health care they need.

Therapy can help

Evidence-based therapy has been shown to improve a variety of mental health conditions and overall well-being, and can help veterans manage their symptoms and reach their goals. 

SonderMind can help connect you or a loved one with a therapist who specializes in military and veteran care. As a company founded by a veteran, SonderMind is committed to ensuring that those who served our country have access to the mental health care they need and deserve. 

Veteran mental health resources 

U.S Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Mental Health Services 

The VA offers mental health services ranging from peer support with other veterans to counseling, therapy, and medication. Veterans can use some VA services even if they’re not enrolled in VA health care. 

VA Women Veterans Call Center

Call or text 1-855-829-6636 (Monday - Friday, 8 AM - 10 PM and Saturday, 8 AM - 6:30 PM EST) to get help navigating the VA and to get connected with your local VA medical center. 

VA Vet Centers

These community-based counseling centers offer a safe space for veterans to discuss their experiences and feelings with other veterans. 

Veterans Crisis Line

If you or a loved one is having thoughts of suicide, call 988, then PRESS 1, or visit veteranscrisisline.net. For emergency mental health care, veterans can also go directly to their local VA medical center 24/7 regardless of their discharge status or enrollment in other VA health care.

MakeTheConnection.net

This website hosts information, resources, and videos of discussions between veterans regarding challenging life events and experiences with mental health issues.

Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS)

Veterans can request a peer mentor who has experienced a military loss and can support them through feelings of grief.    

Team Red, White & Blue

This site offers a health and wellness community for veterans.

Student Veterans of America (SVA)

Student veterans can find an SVA chapter in their area to connect with other student veterans and find resources and support. 

Veteran caregiver resources

VA Caregiver Support Line

Call 1-855-260-3274 (Monday - Friday, 8 AM - 10 PM and Saturday, 8 AM - 5 PM EST)

American Red Cross Military Veteran Caregiver Network

Access peer support and mentoring from veteran caregivers of all eras, relations, and locations.

Elizabeth Dole Foundation Hidden Heroes

Get comprehensive case management support, assistance applying for benefits, help from fellow caregiving peers, and more.

Last Updated:
Published:
First Published:
December 13, 2022

Sources:

Butler, A., Rigg, K., and True, G. (2015, September 9). Understanding barriers to mental health care for recent war veterans through photovoice. U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. https://www.hsrd.research.va.gov/TrueQHR_published.pdf

Darcy, A. and Mariano, T.  (2021, August 6). Mental health in America: A growing crisis. Psychiatric Times. https://www.psychiatrictimes.com/view/mental-health-america-crisis

Health Services Research and Development. (2022, May). Spotlight on mental health. U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. https://www.hsrd.research.va.gov/news/feature/mental-health.cfm

The House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. (n.d.). Mental health resources for veterans. https://veterans.house.gov/mental-health-resources-for-veterans

Inoue, C., Jordan,C., and Jackson, C., and Shawler, E. (2022, May 23). Veteran and military mental health issues. National Library of Medicine. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/34283458/

Kaplan, D. (2019, July 8). Reducing military mental health stigma to improve treatment engagement guidance for clinicians. Military Health System and Defense Health Agency. https://health.mil/Military-Health-Topics/Centers-of-Excellence/Psychological-Health-Center-of-Excellence/Clinicians-Corner-Blog/Reducing-Military-Mental-Health-Stigma-to-Improve-Treatment-Engagement-Guidance-for-Clinicians

Mayo Clinic Staff. (n.d.). Traumatic brain injury. Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/traumatic-brain-injury/symptoms-causes/syc-20378557

National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2019, October). Substance use and military life DrugFacts. https://nida.nih.gov/publications/drugfacts/substance-use-military-life

National Veterans Foundation. (2016, March 25). Troubling veteran mental health facts and statistics that need to be addressed. https://nvf.org/veteran-mental-health-facts-statistics/

Office of Research and Development. (n.d.). VA research on mental health. U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. https://www.research.va.gov/topics/mental_health.cfm

RAND Corporation. (n.d.). Veterans' mental health issues. https://www.rand.org/health-care/projects/navigating-mental-health-care-for-veterans/mental-health-issues.html#substance-use-disorder-

Roscoe, R. (2020, April 23). The battle against mental health stigma: Examining how veterans with PTSD communicatively manage stigma. National Library of Medicine. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32323576/

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (n.d.). Evidence-based therapy. https://www.mentalhealth.va.gov/get-help/treatment/ebt.asp

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (n.d.). Family member or friend. https://www.mentalhealth.va.gov/families/index.asp

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (2021, August 6). Veterans employment toolkit. https://www.va.gov/vetsinworkplace/docs/em_challengesreadjust.asp

related resources

Connect with a licensed therapist for online video or in-person therapy sessions.