En español | Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is one of the most common mental health challenges that veterans face. In some cases, it can be even more debilitating than physical wounds.
Vietnam veterans have the highest lifetime prevalence of PTSD, followed by soldiers who served in Operation Iraqi Freedom and the Gulf War, according to a report by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).
"Data shows, yes, their military experience and any traumatic experiences, life-threatening experiences, combat experiences and deployment — those are all major factors. But they don't really tell the whole story about what culminates and accrues to their suffering and potential disability later on in their life,” explained Christine Moutier, chief medical officer of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
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Symptoms of PTSD
PTSD symptoms can start soon after a traumatic event but in some cases it may not appear until months or years later. Symptoms may also come and go through the years. There are four types of PTSD symptoms, but they may not appear the same to everyone.
Reliving the traumatic event through nightmares, flashbacks, noises or smells that trigger memories of the event.
Avoiding things that remind you of the event such as crowds because they feel dangerous or driving because you were in a car accident.
Having more negative thoughts and feelings than before the event in ways that make you feel numb, forget parts of the traumatic event, becoming unable to talk about them, thinking the world is dangerous, and feelings of guilt or shame.
Feeling on edge or on alert to an extreme degree that leads to difficulty sleeping and concentrating, substance abuse, aggressive behavior, or bad reactions to loud noises or surprises.
Source: Department of Veterans Affairs
Some of those additional factors include veterans’ stress related to transitions that come with reintegration to civilian life after serving.
"It's these significant periods of transition in military personnel and ultimately veterans’ lives that intersect with their experiences of trauma, combat and deployment,” said Moutier, who was a VA psychiatrist for 17 years. “We now understand that if the veteran is facing homelessness or unemployment, or the inability to sustain themselves or their family, that is also a traumatizing experience."
During her time working with veterans at the VA, she said, the majority of her older patients waited years before coming in for mental health treatment. “It was manifesting in a way that was harmful and detrimental to their own health, and even to their family members around them,” she said.
Many veterans don't know they are suffering from mental health issues due to a stereotype that mental illness exists only in extreme circumstances. In reality, it not uncommon.
Resources for veterans
If you or someone you know in the veteran community is struggling with PTSD or other mental health challenges, there are a number of free programs and resources that may be able to help.
AARP Caregiving Resource Guide: Older adults and their family caregivers can use this guide to find programs, services and agencies in their community that provide a variety of health, legal and financial assistance.
AARP Mental & Emotional Health Support For Veteran & Military Family Caregivers: For those in the military community who may be grappling with stress review these five steps to practice self-care.
Department of Veterans Affairs: Veterans enrolled in VA health care can get mental health support and treatment options from the VA. The department has a support page with resources for a variety of conditions, including the National Center for PTSD. Learn how to enroll in VA health care here.
Disabled American Veterans (DAV): Connect with your local DAV benefits expert to learn about earned benefits, or find the mental health services needed to diagnose and treat PTSD.
Home Base Veteran and Family Care: The organization's two-week Intensive Clinical Program treats veterans with PTSD, Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), sexual trauma, depression and anxiety. Although it is based in Boston, it uses a holistic approach and serve veterans and their families from across the country.
Lone Survivor Foundation: Veterans who live with PTSD, TBI or chronic pain can participate in a variety of therapeutic and outdoor opportunities focused on the recovery and health of service members and their families, including a plan for continued recovery once returning home.
PTSD Foundation of America: Combat veterans and their families who have PTSD are offered peer-to-peer mentoring at local groups and chapters throughout the country.
True REST Float Spa: Veterans are offered one free hour of flotation therapy in a pod filled with a specialized solution of 1,000 pounds of Epsom salts and 180 gallons of water, allowing the body to float effortlessly. The practice has been proven to alleviate anxiety, depression and chronic pain. There are locations in 14 states.
VA mental health apps: The VA provides a variety of mobile apps that can help veterans with challenges such as PTSD and insomnia, as well as anger management.
Veterans Crisis Line: Veterans in crisis or those who are concerned about one can connect with a trained responder via phone (800-273-8255), text message or online chat. Responders are also able to connect veterans with their local suicide prevention coordinator to schedule future care.
Warrior Care Network: The Wounded Warrior Project partners with four academic medical centers to provide mental health services for post-Sept. 11 veterans. Participating veterans receive a year's worth of care during a two- to three-week outpatient program. Those who have participated report significant improvement in PTSD and depression symptoms.
Aaron Kassraie writes about issues important to military veterans and their families for AARP. He also serves as a general assignment reporter. Kassraie previously covered U.S. foreign policy as a correspondent for the Kuwait News Agency's Washington bureau and worked in news gathering for USA Today and Al Jazeera English.