The decision to serve your country in the armed forces is not one to be made lightly. Currently, there is an estimated 1.4 million active service members in the United States military, serving in all six branches. ¹ And with over an estimated 200,000 service members returning home from deployment annually, the concern of a military member’s mental health upon transitioning back to civilian life is more than understandable.
A common buzz word that circulates around around brave men and women that choose to serve is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD is a relatively new term, sprouting up after the Vietnam War in the late 1970’s. Recently, it’s been attached to our service members since the Iraq and Afghanistan conflict, which began in the late 1990’s and is currently ongoing to today.
However, with advances in our understanding of mental health disorders and treatment, PTSD is becoming a more common diagnosis for those transitioning from a career in the armed forces to a civilian life at home here in the States. Throughout this article, we’re going to look into this complex issue and how it affects our service members overseas as well as Stateside here at home.
PTSD in Veterans and Military
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a mental disorder that involves a person who has witnessed a traumatic incident firsthand, in turn, has repercussions after said event. These usually involve a range of avoidance symptoms that all tie back to the large umbrella of PTSD.
Often, military personnel and emergency responders will face PTSD due to the nature of their work. Those that serve on the frontlines to natural disasters, emergency response, and combat situations sometimes will have PTSD-related symptoms either directly following a traumatic incident or down the line, with some symptoms developing later on.
PTSD Military Statistics
When we discuss the stats and figures of those that serve our country coming home with PTSD, we have to bear in mind that these are numbers of those that have reached out and have been diagnosed with said condition. Many people – especially men – aren’t as open to sharing their mental health difficulties even with professionals.
Of those that have served as country in the armed forces overseas, an estimated 20% to 30% have been diagnosed with PTSD. ²
Military PTSD Symptoms
Military PTSD have components of survivors guilt, trauma, anxiety, and depression all tied together. As previously stated, PTSD is commonly brought on by witnessing either violent, disturbing or dangerous situations.
However, the severity of symptoms vary from individual to individual. Some factors include their mental state previous to the traumatic event and how much they were involved in the traumatic event.
Survivors Guilt and Remorse
Survivors guilt is a major component to military-specific PTSD. Some military members feel this as a result of losing fellow soldiers that they knew and served alongside with. There are some members of the military and veterans that feel remorse for their actions as active duty soldiers.
Most of these are combat-related situations wherein soldiers used lethal action and, as a consequence, feel remorse for what they did. Survivors guilt and remorse are major and complex components to a soldier’s struggle with military-specific PTSD and often it’s difficult for those service members to open up and discuss these topics, especially during civilian life. ³
It is best to tread lightly in topics and conversations revolving around survivors guilt and remorse as it’s a sensitive subject and should only be broached when the service member or veteran is ready to talk about it.
Avoidance Behaviors in Service Members
Due to the complex nature of military work, it’s common for soldiers and veterans to practice avoidance behaviors in order to not deal with their internal mental struggles. Oftentimes, this is due to a fear of having to relive the incident and face the repercussions of that incident head on.
Most avoidance behaviors look exactly how it sounds: The person who’s suffering actively either directly or indirectly tries to avoid discussing or dealing with the complications of their military specific PTSD.
The Causes of Military PTSD
The causes of military-specific PTSD are understandable when you look at the nature of military work. Warfare, close combat, extensive and restrictive travel, and being called to duty whenever and wherever its deemed necessary can put toll on a solider – no matter the branch of service.
When you add to that the fact that a soldier’s life is always at risk to be lost in the savagery of warfare and combat, the trauma only fuels the stress which feeds the anxiety.
However, more serious cases of military-specific PTSD often are as a result to close proximity of distressing situations or due to the personal loss, either with that of a fellow unit member or with a victim of combat missions. If a solider is present for those horrible events, it can plant the seed of PTSD with a ferocity that can drive the sufferer to more serious behaviors in order to try and avoid or deal with the trauma on their own.
The Risk Factors of Military PTSD
Combat soldiers are the most at risk for developing PTSD due to the nature of their day-to-day lives in that position. It’s concerning that a large percentage of our brave men and women that pledge to serve our country are coming home broken and scarred physically, emotionally, and mentally from the perils of warfare.
And although emotional and physical scars are visible and present to those around the solider, the mental toll is often buried, pushed down and dealt in the darkness of the veteran’s own mind. Dealing with this mental toll on one’s own ownership often leads to situations of self medicating or in extreme cases self harm or suicide.
Self-Medicating Away the PTSD
Self medicating is often a way to also avoid problems and difficult thoughts and memories. The Veteran Affairs Office of the United States Government has been tracking the alcohol, nicotine and substance use and abuse in active and former members of the military. They have also looked directly into substance abuse as a way to deal with worsening PTSD symptoms and the stats and facts on this issue is insightful and serves as a warning sign for those suffering from PTSD. ⁴
On average, 2 out of 10 veterans who were diagnosed with PTSD have also showed signs of a substance abuse disorder (SAD), often with alcohol but sometimes with other substances. ⁵ Those dealing with traumatic experiences often will utilize outside substances in order to avoid issues, opting to numb themselves from the psychological pain.
Binge drinking is prevalent in cases where there is a dual diagnosis of military PTSD and SAD. This is defined by imbibing more than four to five drinks in a timespan of less than an hour. It’s an important distinction because they can lead to worsening physical and mental health down the road – for example, blackouts are prevalent in military-specific PTSD. ⁶
Self Harm & Suicide in Service Members
It’s an awful reality that those that selflessly decide to take up the responsibility of protecting our freedom are coming home feeling that home is as foreign as the countries they were serving in. Adjusting and transitioning to civilian life can be complicated and, for some, a difficult new reality.
It’s tragic but there are some that cannot find their footing in this transitionary period and find no other way to cope. In turn, these individuals feel the need to harm themselves to try and find a way out of their troubles.
Over the past five years, there have been a rise in soldier suicide and suicide attempts. It’s become a concerning and developing issue that has gained the attention of the US Pentagon in order to try and come up with some solutions to prevent this phenomenon. It’s imperative for those struggling to not try and suffer in silence, that they reach out for help. ⁷
Recovery for Military PTSD
PTSD recovery for military members is a journey rather than a simple treatment path. For military members, treatment is something that requires acknowledgment of past trauma and a willingness to overcome the difficulties PTSD symptoms bring with it.
Military PTSD Treatment
Most military members find solace in talk therapy in a group setting with other active and former military members. For those who have served and are experiencing military-specific PTSD, it may be necessary for them to have another veteran to open up to and discuss shared experiences, trauma, and past combat situations. Having group talk therapy sessions allow for a more broader support base and, therefore, make reliving said traumatic events more manageable.
There are also medications that can alter the serotonin inhibitor, such as SSRIs and SNRIs. These are often utilized in order to try and regulate the response in the brain. Those with PTSD tend to struggle with depression and anxiety as well. In turn, mental health professionals may provide other medications to help with these issues. ⁸
How to Help a Veteran With PTSD
The desire to try to come to the aid of a loved one who’s struggling with a mental condition is understandable. However, veterans might having difficulty admitting that they need care or have something preventing them for getting the care they need.
It’s great to help, but it shouldn’t be forced on someone unless their lives are dependent on it. The most important role that one can be for another is an open, safe person to come to – a compassionate ear to listen and, if needed, a hand to be extended in times of crisis.
Those who are civilians will never fully understand the challenges and mental toll that a soldier endures through in order to keep us safe. However, that doesn’t prevent one from being a friend that they can count on. Having a support network is one way to aid someone through tough and turbulent times and celebrate and enjoy the good times.
There are networks and pathways for support that veterans and active duty military personnel can utilize for their own mental health as well. Those pathways like the Wounded Warrior’s Warrior Care Network and the Veteran Crisis Text and Phone Line that can be accessed in order to get specific PTSD and mental health services.
It’s an honor to serve your country, to protect it from enemies that are foreign and domestic. However, with serving comes caveats including being away from family and friends, traveling and training, and enduring significant amounts of stress and trauma.
The trauma from serving can be difficult to process and, with the traveling and the shipping out from home to countries all over the world, it can cause difficulties in getting proper help. Add to it the transition from a military career to a civilian life and you bring with a ton of baggage both literal and figurative.
With 20% of those that serve developing some sort of PTSD condition, it is imperative that we are aware of how PTSD manifests and when to seek treatment. ⁹ With family and loved ones ready to serve as support, anyone who’s suffering in silence can find the strength to find relief.
Still have questions concerning how military PTSD can affect your mental health?
We invite you to ask them in the comments section below. If you have any further knowledge to share – whether personal or professional – we’d also love to hear from you.
¹ FiveThirtyEight Statistical Studies: What Percentage Of Americans Have Served In The Military?
² National Library of Medicine via National Institute of Health: PTSD Treatment for Veterans: What’s Working, What’s New, and What’s Next?
³ Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis School of Political Sciences: The Guilt of Combat Veterans
⁴ United States Veteran Affairs Office: Understanding PTSD & Substance Abuse – A Fact Sheet
⁵ United States Veteran Affairs Office: PTSD and Substance Abuse in Veterans
⁶ National Library of Medicine via United States Veteran Affairs Office: Drinking & Military PTSD
⁷ U.S. Naval Institute Press: Pentagon ‘Very Concerned’ With Military Suicide Trends
⁸ United States Veteran Affairs Office: PTSD Treatment
⁹ United States Veteran Affairs Office: How Common is PTSD in Veterans?