The Scope of Veterans Mental Health in the United States
It is widely accepted that veterans face mental health issues disproportionately higher than the general population.
However, many veterans are hesitant to report or seek help for mental health issues, so the number of veterans struggling is likely even higher than documented.
Here are some key statistics on veterans mental health:
- Female veterans are more likely to develop mental health issues than male veterans. However, male veterans are more likely to struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
- The most common mental health disorders in veterans are depression, alcohol use disorder, PTSD, and anxiety.
- Only 50% of veterans receive mental health treatment after returning home or ending their service.
- 7% of veterans have PTSD during their lifetime, although this number can be much higher for certain service eras. For instance, it is estimated that up to 12% of Gulf War veterans and up to 30% of Vietnam War veterans have PTSD.
- There are currently about 2.1 million veterans in the U.S. with mental health conditions.
- 1 in up to 10 veterans has a major depressive disorder.
- As of 2019, it is estimated that about 17 veterans commit suicide every day.
Common Mental Health Issues Veterans Face
Veterans face a wide range of potential mental health issues upon returning to civilian life, with conditions and symptoms ranging significantly from mild to severe.
Here are some of the more common mental health issues in veterans.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), 7% of veterans will have PTSD at some point, compared to 6% of people in the general population.
PTSD is most common in veterans who experienced combat and difficult deployments, but it can result from any military-related trauma.
Additionally, PTSD is a possible neurobehavioral effect of the toxic water at Camp Lejeune.
Suicide is far more common in military service members and veterans than in the general population, and the reasons for this aren’t entirely clear.
“In 2019, the adjusted [suicide] rate for Veterans was 52.3% greater than for non-Veteran U.S. adults.”
—U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs
There is, however, evidence to suggest that suicide rates could potentially be higher in veterans since the rates of mental health disorders and substance use disorders are also both higher than among civilians.
Depression and anxiety are also common among veterans, who struggle with issues like difficulty adapting to civilian life, unemployment, and homelessness.
One of the most significant challenges of depression in veterans is that it can lead to other conditions like substance abuse or suicidal thoughts.
Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI)
Traumatic brain injury (TBI) is a type of brain damage common among veterans. It is often caused by a strong external force, such as a violent blow or blast.
These types of injuries can range from mild to severe and can cause permanent changes in brain function. TBI can lead to severe complications, including brain damage and even death in some situations.
Mental health issues can also result from head and brain injuries.
Military Sexual Trauma (MST)
Military sexual trauma (MST) affects people of all genders, sexualities, races, and backgrounds. It refers to any sexual assault or harassment that occurs during a person’s military service.
When military sexual trauma isn’t addressed, or a victim is ignored, other conditions may develop, like depression and substance use disorders, as people try to cope.
Substance Use Issues
Substance abuse is common among both active duty service members and veterans, affecting an estimated 1 in 10 veterans.
Substance use disorders may be more common among veterans because issues like PTSD, depression, and exposure to trauma can lead them to self-medicate as a means of coping.
Other Mental Health Issues
Veterans can also experience other mental health problems (such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia) and may also find that mental health issues that they had before their service have only worsened during or after serving.
Concerns Veterans Face in Seeking Mental Health Treatment
It is not always an easy undertaking for someone to seek mental health treatment, but this process can be even harder for military service members and veterans because of the unique challenges and barriers they face.
Mental Health Stigma
There is a lot of stigma surrounding mental health in general, and these feelings can be exacerbated by military culture.
Not only can this stigma prevent veterans from seeking mental health treatment, but it can also prevent them from opening up properly and being honest when they do seek treatment.
Effects on Military Career
Veterans and service members may be concerned that seeking treatment for their mental health could negatively affect their military career or reputation.
“Despite considerable efforts to destigmatize MH [mental health] treatment-seeking, a substantial proportion of service members believe that seeking help will negatively impact their careers.”
—Military Medicine (2022)
Some evidence does suggest a higher discharge rate for those seeking mental health treatment, but a direct link hasn’t been established.
This is because factors like childhood trauma, behavior problems, and alcohol abuse might increase the chances of both treatment-seeking and discharge.
Discrimination in Health Care
While there are policies in place to protect minority veterans, some veterans may experience discrimination based on gender, race, religion, ethnicity, or sexual preference when seeking mental health care.
Further, the fear of discrimination can be enough to prevent many veterans from seeking the care they need.
Lack of Awareness of Treatment Options
There can be an overall lack of awareness amongst veterans, particularly those in more isolated communities, of mental health treatment options that are available to them.
In addition, veterans often don’t know that mental health treatment can be more affordable than they might think, thanks to financial resources.
Lack of Appropriate Treatment Services
Sadly, there may also be a lack of available and appropriate treatment choices and services for veterans in some areas.
Veterans face unique challenges regarding their mental health, and some communities may lack the specialized care needed for veterans to succeed in treatment.
Thankfully, telehealth services allow veterans to access online visits to mental health providers to avoid these problems.
Some veterans report financial barriers as a factor that prevents them from seeking mental health treatment.
However, VA health insurance often covers mental health treatment services, and there are often discounted programs and other types of financial assistance available as well.
Factors That Affect Whether a Veteran Seeks Mental Health Care
Not all veterans who are in need of mental health care find or use it, and there are often many barriers that prevent veterans from seeking care.
Factors that may affect whether veterans seek mental health care include:
- Command structure influences: Some veterans may still be influenced by their place in the chain of command during service and may fear damage to their reputation.
- Fear or mistrust: Veterans may be hesitant about storing and using personal health information out of fear their data will be misused or abused. Others may mistrust the VA in general when it comes to mental health.
- Military socialization and culture: Military culture might discourage the open expression of vulnerabilities.
Mental Health VA Resources Available to Veterans
Veterans have many resources available to help address mental health issues, including several services through the VA.
In addition to covering the costs of various mental health treatments, the VA provides veterans with a range of useful mental health resources.
Mental Health Care at Vet Centers
Vet centers provide counseling to veterans and their loved ones in small, non-medical offices and are usually available free of charge.
Services provided at vet centers include individual, group, and couples counseling and substance abuse and grief counseling.
Find a vet center in your area now.
VA Self-Help Programs
The VA has an online self-help and educational resource hub available to veterans 24/7 called Veteran Training. It is completely free and confidential.
The VA’s My Recovery Plan, part of the Veterans Training site, is a self-guided tool geared toward helping veterans overcome mental setbacks.
Courses in anger management, parenting, overcoming sleep disorders, and much more are also offered through the Veterans Training hub.
How to Access VA Mental Health Benefits
Veterans, their caregivers, and eligible family members can apply for VA mental health benefits at any time. See how below.
1. Apply for VA Health Benefits
Applying for VA benefits can be done in a few different ways, depending on what is most convenient.
To apply for benefits, you will need the following items:
- Current health insurance information for yourself and your eligible family members
- Discharge papers from the military
- Social security numbers for yourself and your eligible family members
You may also need to provide proof of your household income and a tally of your deductible expenses from the previous year.
Visit the official website of the VA to get the most accurate and up-to-date information on applying for VA benefits.
2. Find a VA Health Care Provider
In many cases, to utilize VA benefits for mental health care, veterans must use VA-approved health care providers.
To find a VA health care provider or facility, you can use the VA facility directory.
3. Schedule Your Mental Health Consultation
Once you have located a VA health care provider, you can contact them to schedule your mental health consultation.
Your initial consultation will likely be with a social worker for the VA, who will work with you to develop a care plan and connect you with further mental health treatment providers like therapists and psychiatrists.
Other Mental Health Resources for Veterans
In addition to mental health resources provided by the VA, there are other resources that veterans and their family members may find useful.
Veterans Crisis Helplines
Crisis hotlines can be great resources for veterans. For example, the Veterans Crisis Line is a hotline available for free to veterans and their loved ones 24/7, regardless of their status of enrollment in VA health benefits.
To access the Veterans Crisis Line, Call 988, then press 1 or Text 838255. You can also chat online.
Representatives for the Veterans Crisis Line have specialized training in mental health and suicide prevention. They can help guide veterans through their options and how to seek in-person help.
Here are some other veterans crisis helplines:
- Lifeline for Vets: This helpline is available through the National Veterans Foundation and can be reached at (888) 777-4443.
- National Call Center for Homeless Veterans: This hotline is run by the VA and is available to homeless veterans or those at risk of homelessness. Veterans, family, and friends, can call 24/7 at (877) 424-3838.
Free Mental Health Clinics for Veterans
There are numerous organizations available that provide free and confidential counseling to military families and veterans.
Free mental health clinics for veterans include:
- Give an Hour: This organization provides free mental health counseling to veterans, focusing on those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as their loved ones.
- Homecoming for Veterans: This group provides free mental health treatment specifically for veterans who have PTSD and specializes in a treatment known as neurofeedback.
- Military One Source: This organization provides non-medical counseling and specialty consultations to veterans and their loved ones and provides various other supportive services to veterans.
Online Resources and Support Groups for Veterans
Online resources and support groups for veterans can be a great way to find supportive communities, even if the veteran is unable or uncomfortable with attending in-person support groups.
Online resources and support groups for veterans include:
- Military and Veteran Caregiver Network: This resource is for caregivers of service members and veterans and connects them with support groups, mentors, and other resources.
- National Resource Directory: This website connects veterans to valuable resources across dozens of topics and areas of assistance, such as employment, housing, and mental health.
- VetFriends: This online portal serves as a resource for connecting veterans to other veterans who were important to them in the past.
Treatment Options for Veterans Mental Health Care
Treating veterans’ mental health conditions is essential for their well-being. Here are some of the most effective treatments for veterans’ mental health conditions.
Therapy for PTSD
PTSD is typically treated through a combination of medications and therapy and can include individual, group, and family therapy when appropriate.
Types of therapies that are effective for treating PTSD are cognitive processing therapy, prolonged exposure therapy, and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing.
Therapy for Depression
Therapy for depression can include individual or group therapy, with some providers utilizing behavioral treatments such as cognitive behavioral therapy.
Depending on the severity of their condition, veterans may have the option to use either outpatient or inpatient treatment for their depression.
Therapy for Suicidal Ideation
There is not any one type of therapy used to treat suicidal ideation, as it often co-occurs with other conditions, but cognitive behavioral therapy can be an effective option.
This type of therapy helps veterans understand how their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are related to better manage stress or trauma.
Traumatic Brain Injury Care
Traumatic brain injury is treated in various ways, depending on the severity of the damage and the symptoms the individual experiences.
Treatment can include a combination of medications, surgery, and physical or occupational therapy.
Therapy for Sexual Trauma
Sexual assault leads to significant physical and emotional trauma, and individualized treatment is essential.
One therapy is trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy, which focuses on developing healthy thinking and coping skills for dealing with emotional trauma. Another treatment option is psychodynamic psychotherapy, which explores unconscious processes and past experiences.
Other Mental Health Treatment Services
Additional mental health services can include holistic treatments like yoga and meditation, adventure therapy, art and music therapy, animal therapy, and equine therapy.
Veterans can also try faith-based treatments that take a spiritual approach to improving mental health.
Financial Assistance for Veterans in Need of Mental Health Care
Veterans and service members have several options regarding financial assistance for mental health care. While other barriers may prevent veterans from seeking treatment, financial obstacles should never be one of them.
TRICARE is a form of military insurance available to active duty service members and military personnel, retired service members, and eligible family members.
Mental health care is covered through this insurance. However, it is important to remember that veterans will qualify for different coverage amounts under TRICARE, depending on their eligibility.
VA Health Care and Disability Benefits
The VA also offers health and disability benefits for qualifying veterans through VA health care.
Veterans can also use disability benefits if they were injured or became ill during service (for example, exposure to toxic water at Camp Lejeune). Mental health conditions, such as PTSD, are included as qualifying injuries for these benefits.
It is usually possible for veterans to access mental health care for themselves and their families at no cost through the assistance of non-profit organizations.
These organizations are typically funded through private donations, corporate sponsorships, government grants, contracts, or private investments that allow them to offer their services for free or at minimal cost to veterans.
Non-profit mental health treatment programs for veterans include:
- Cohen Veterans Network: Provides in-person counseling and telehealth services to veterans of the post-9/11 generation and their families.
- The Headstrong Project: Provides PTSD treatment to veterans with up to 30 free sessions for each eligible client.
- National Veterans Foundation: Provides outreach and vet-to-vet crisis counseling with a focus on preventing veteran suicide.
- PTSD Foundation of America: Offers a free, faith-based mental health program for people living with PTSD called Camp Hope and other resources for veterans.
- Wounded Warrior Project: Dedicated to veterans with PTSD and TBI, this group provides free mental health support to veterans in need, including an adventure therapy program and mental health support via telephone.
VA Financial Hardship Assistance
The VA offers financial hardship assistance for veterans who experience a sudden decrease in income and/or an increase in their health care-related expenses.
Financial hardship assistance through the VA can provide help in three ways:
- The VA may forgive the partial or full debt of veterans who request debt relief waivers.
- The VA may accept a smaller, one-time compromise payment as a settlement to resolve a debt.
- The VA allows for a repayment plan during which the veteran pays off their full debt over an agreed-upon period.
Bridging the Mental Health Treatment Gap for Veterans
Bridging the mental health treatment gap for veterans means doing what needs to be done to ensure that barriers are addressed and that veterans feel comfortable and safe seeking care.
This can mean many things, including destigmatizing mental health issues and working for change within the military to get rid of outdated attitudes toward mental illness.
Some ways to bridge the gap include:
- Continuing to provide mental health services for veterans at little to no cost
- Educating the general population on signs to look for in veterans they love
- Making sure that veterans are informed about available resources
- Providing regular mental health evaluations for veterans that include suicide risk screenings
- Using evidence-based treatments and therapies to address various mental health conditions
Help and Hope for Veterans Facing Mental Health Issues
If you or a loved one is living with mental health issues after ending military service, be aware that there are resources available 24/7 nationally and locally.
It is never too late for a veteran to get their life and mental health back on track, and no veteran should ever have to feel alone on this journey.
The entire Camp Lejeune Claims Center staff wishes to thank all U.S. veterans for their brave service to their country. Using the resources above, we hope that veterans struggling with any mental health issues can find the treatment they absolutely deserve.