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Coming Home: Mental Health Resources for Veterans and Their Families

     

This Veterans Day, more than 15 years have passed since the launch of Operation Enduring Freedom in 2001. Throughout years of subsequent conflict in Afghanistan and Iraq, millions of U.S. service members have deployed and then returned home changed—infused with the heroism of war, but also with its sacrifice and trauma.

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A number of these veterans often see themselves as alone, floating in a world that superficially lauds, but cannot truly understand, what they have experienced. Their family members—spouses, significant others, parents, children, and siblings—who have waited for their return with open arms, come to realize that though the returning soldier may be physically home, they are still mentally and emotionally very much elsewhere.

The hazards of war are many. Besides countless and potentially devastating physical injuries, a myriad of mental health conditions affect veterans’ transition to home: posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), traumatic brain injury (TBI), substance use disorders, depression, anxiety, sleep problems, and suicide are just some of them. Without the right resources, such challenges can seem overwhelming to both veterans and their families.

But there is hope. Here are some tips for veterans and family members who are experiencing difficulties to find the help they need:

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If you are a veteran:

  • You are not alone. The symptoms you feel are occupational hazards deserving treatment, not character flaws that must be buried and endured on your own. Many other veterans are going through the same thing, though they may choose not to talk about it.
  • Learn more. Knowledge about your experiences gives you more control. Talk to your doctor, chaplain, or other source of support. See below for links to resources.
  • Help is out there. Many treatments are available, including medications, talk therapy, mindfulness training, exercise programs, support groups, and apps, among others. If one treatment does not work, another may.
  • Support each other. If you feel like a fish out of water after coming home, it is not “just you”—there are vast differences between military and civilian cultures. Veterans can be tremendous support for each other during the transition back.
  • Break the silence. Too many veterans are suffering alone, and dying alone, due to stigma against the psychological injuries of war. By speaking up for yourself, and reaching out for help, you are doing your part to reverse that trend.

If you are a family member:

  • You are not alone. A veteran’s mental health concerns affect not just that veteran, but also his or her entire family. The frustration, anger, sadness, or burnout that you may experience are also shared by other family members of veterans.
  • Learn more. Educating yourself about veterans’ mental health can help both you and them. Talk your doctor, chaplain, or other source of support. See below for links to additional resources.
  • Go to them. The military culture of stoicism and resilience can present a psychological block to asking for help. But your veteran wants to be heard, and understood, even though he or she may not be able to express that. Offer your presence and support—sometimes, your presence is your support.
  • Let them come to you. At the same time, respect your veteran’s autonomy. The experience of trauma comes with an immense loss of control, and showing a veteran that he or she is in control now can be profoundly healing. While being available, give your veteran the space that he or she needs.
  • Take care of yourself, too. You have also made many sacrifices during your veteran’s military service, and you, too, deserve caring and compassion. Be sure to make room for yourself. Seek out a support group, or your own mental health treatment, if you think it would benefit you.

Additional Resources

These resources are not a replacement for professional medical services; if you are concerned about a veteran who is suicidal or homicidal, call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room immediately.

  • PTSD. The National Center for PTSD provides information for veterans, family members, and the general public about PTSD diagnosis and treatment. It also offers resources on other common problems (e.g., sleep issues, substance use disorders, TBI, suicide) and has links to multiple self-help apps.
  • Alcohol use. VetChange is a free and confidential online program that helps veterans take control of their drinking.
  • Suicide. The Veterans Crisis Line, which can be reached at 1-800-273-8255, offers help for veterans and families in crisis, such as when a veteran is in danger of taking his or her own life. It includes a text/chat option as well.

About the Author

Mary C. Zeng, M.D.
Clinical Fellow in Psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital and the Home Base Program in Boston
Public Psychiatry Fellow of the APA

     

AnxietySleep DisordersDepressionAddictionPTSD

 

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