Help and Guidance For Veterans Seeking Help for PTSD and Substance Abuse
"The Stress They Carried"
Today's veteran faces many challenges when returning home from war and working to integrate back into normal society. In addition to the regular challenges of getting back to civilian work, today's vet faces a society that may not understand what happened on the battlefield or why it happened. The atrocities of modern war times are difficult for the modern individual to understand. This can leave a veteran feeling alone and disconnected.What this does is open the door to a long list of mental health disorders. Add to this the trauma that soldiers face on the battlefield, and you have a recipe for a generation of veterans who will struggle with their mental health. Sadly, because of the stigma surrounding mental health problems, many of these veterans do not seek the treatment they need and are entitled to receive.If you are struggling with mental health concerns, you are not alone, and it's not your fault. As a soldier, you have been through unimaginable stress and trauma, and that takes a toll on your psychological health. According to the a study published in the National Institutes of Health, one in three veteran patients are diagnosed with at least one mental health disorder. Many of these mental health disorders are triggers for substance abuse problems as well, adding to the burden on already stressed veterans.These concerns can make veterans feel alone and unsupported, but there is help available, both through the US Department of Veterans Affairs (the VA) and through private organizations all around the country, vets can get help for the mental health, substance abuse and psychological concerns they face, so they can start rebuilding life and moving on from the traumas of their service. This guide will help you find and access these services, so you can build a wall of support around yourself to help combat the realities of mental health concerns.Remember, there is no shame in needing help for your mental health concerns. The sooner you seek treatment, the better your future will be. Use these resources to start the journey of healing.
Mental Health – PTSDOne of the more common concerns members of the military face is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD. This mental health disorder occurs because of a reaction to a trauma or dangerous event that occurs for the individual. While anyone can go through trauma, being in the military greatly increases the risk of PTSD, because service members are always dealing with traumatic events. Members of the military who see or participate in combat or who experience life-threatening events are at high risk of developing PTSD as a result.Interestingly, according to the VA, the percent of veterans who struggle with PTSD is relatively stable across service eras. Both the Gulf War and Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom have PTSD rates of between 11 and 20 percent. Vietnam War veterans have a current rate of 15 percent, though an estimated 30 percent struggled with PTSD at some point in their lifetime.These numbers are significantly higher than the general population. In the entire U.S. population, including those in the military, about 7 to 8 percent of the population will struggle with PTSD. Numbers are higher for women (10 percent) than men (4 percent).This is not a new problem, but it is one that the general population has become newly aware of because the condition now has a label and gets significant media attention. Records from the Civil War show instances of soldiers who faced intense combat situations exhibiting signs of what is now known as PTSD. While the Civil War era physicians had no name for the condition, the symptoms they list are in line with what is now known as PTSD.PTSD is a serious problem for the modern veteran, and the effects of the disorder can disrupt daily life for those who are struggling. The good news for today’s vets, however, is that help is available. If you suspect that you may be suffering from PTSD, or if there is a veteran in your life you feel may have the condition, here is what you need to do:
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- Recognize the symptoms of PTSD. Most of the time, symptoms of PTSD occur right after the event, but sometimes they don’t start until after the veteran has returned home and gotten settled. Symptoms include reliving the trauma, avoiding situations that remind the person of the trauma, feeling constantly alert or jittery, feeling numb and emotionless and struggles with anger or overreaction. Vets with PTSD may struggle to hold down a job, may become violent and may become victims of drinking or drug problems.
- Track your symptoms. This information can help you talk to your medical providers and determine whether or not your reaction is actually PTSD.
- Note how long the symptoms persist. Anyone who has been through trauma may experience these symptoms temporarily, but they become a disorder if they last for one month or more. Chronic PTSD symptoms last for more than three months.
- Make an appointment with your doctor. Only a doctor or psychologist can diagnose PTSD. The best assessment for PTSD is the Clinician-Administered PTSD Scale for DSM-5. This interview-based assessment can help a practitioner determine if a vet is, in fact, dealing with the condition.
- Find a therapist. While your doctor is the first place to go for help, most patients with PTSD also need the help of a therapist to recover fully. Choose one that has experience treating people who have suffered trauma. Your doctor may be able to recommend one. Once you have a therapist, follow their guidelines and treatment protocols well.
- Know who to call if you are in crisis. Sometimes, PTSD can leave a veteran in crisis. If you are in a medical crisis or feel suicidal, call 911. You can also call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. The Veterans Crisis Line is also of help at 1-800-273-8255 (press 1).
- Enlist the help of a trusted friend or family member. If possible, have a trusted friend or family member come with you to your medical appointments and therapy sessions. This person will help you keep track of the information you are given at your appointments, as much of this can be overwhelming at first. This person can also be a trusted confidant when you have hard days.
- Set goals for yourself. Use SMART goals that are specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-based, so you can see your progress as you recover from PTSD. Work with your therapist and doctor on these goals.
- Know that you can get better! Ultimately, have confidence that with the right treatment, you will get better. There is a light at the end of the PTSD tunnel as long as you are willing to get help when you need it.
Mental Health – Non-PTSDWhile PTSD is a significant problem for today’s veterans, and it is one that is getting a lot of media attention, it is not the only mental health issue that vets can struggle with. Ensuring that veterans are able to get the help they need requires understanding and identifying all of these potential problems.Sometimes, veterans who are injured in combat will experience traumatic brain injuries, also known as TBIs. These can permanently alter the brain’s function and cause serious mental health concerns, changing the individual’s personality and affecting things like reaction times, temper and other emotions.A TBI is a fairly obvious problem, because most veterans know if they received a head injury. One less common problem many veterans face is depression. Sometimes, coming back to civilian life after leading the life of a combat soldier can create depression problems. Veterans feel that they are not understood or appreciated the way they were when they were fighting. They also feel a lack of purpose or total alienation from society when they try to return to civilian life. Because many who have never served cannot understand what it means to be a service member and what combat is truly like, they feel misunderstood, and this sparks feelings of depression.Anxiety is another issue that plagues many veterans, warns the University of Southern California. While not as severe as PTSD, anxiety, when left untreated, can be debilitating. Veterans with anxiety may feel nervous, panicked or tense. They may have breathing trouble, increased heart rate, trembling or overall feelings of weakness. Mayo Clinic warns that sometimes anxiety can manifest as gastrointestinal problems, and many veterans will find themselves working to avoid their anxiety triggers. Anxiety can shift into additional disorders, such as agoraphobia, or the fear of public places or people, panic disorders, social phobias and even specific phobias for particular triggers.Another mental health concern that plagues many veterans is schizophrenia. U.S. Medicine warns that estimating the number of veterans who struggle with this disorder is difficult, because many do not seek treatment. However, an estimated 20 to 33 percent of homeless individuals, homeless vets included, has a serious mental health disorder, and schizophrenia tops the list as the most common. Because schizophrenia disorders can become worse with traumatic events, it makes sense that veterans would struggle.While this list of potential mental health disorders is quite varied, the steps to take to get help are fairly similar. If you suspect that you are dealing with a mental health concern, here is what you need to do:
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- Recognize the symptoms. It’s hard to recognize the symptoms of mental health disorders, but if you are having suicidal thoughts, are finding yourself withdrawing from friends or family, find yourself relying on drugs or alcohol, feel sad or depressed, or simply feel that something is off, make note of the symptoms. Make sure you think about how long they are lasting, because your doctor will want this information.
- Talk to your doctor. Your doctor is the first step in getting help. Talk to your doctor about the symptoms you are experiencing, so you can find out what the next steps are.
- Reach out to your local Vet Center. Meeting with other veterans and getting out of the house can help you get reconnected with people who understand what you are going through. This is particularly important if you feel that no one understands what it is like for you. Other veterans will understand.
- Identify your triggers. If you can find certain events or situations that trigger your mental health issues, you can learn either how to navigate them better or how to avoid them, depending on what they are.
- Avoid the temptation to isolate yourself. If you are finding that you simply aren’t getting out into the community and enjoying life like you once did, then you are falling victim to social isolation. Force yourself to get out of your home and into the community. Enlist the help of a friend who can make you participate, even when you don’t want to.
- Get immediate help if you feel suicidal. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 if you feel that you may be having suicidal thoughts. These crisis counselors are on call 24/7 to help you through this time.
- Find a therapist who understands mental health issues and the needs of veterans. When it comes to mental health and veterans, you need a therapist, but you need the right one. Start looking for a therapist early, because many parts of the country have long wait times for VA mental health services.
- Enlist the help of a trusted family member or friend. When you have mental illness, there will be days that feel more difficult than you can handle. This is where the help of a trusted family ember or friend is critical. Reach out to someone you trust to ensure you have someone you can rely on for those hard days.
- Protect your physical health. Physical health has a direct impact on mental health. Eat well and exercise regularly, then work to get enough sleep, in order to support overall wellness in your life.
Veterans and Substance AbuseWhen a veteran feels isolated and alone after returning from active duty and trying to reintegrate into civilian life, turning to drugs and alcohol can seem like a natural thing to do. Unfortunately, this creates serious problems for many veterans who find themselves struggling with substance abuse and addiction.According to Lifeline for Vets, substance abuse problems are on the rise among veterans. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration indicates that over 7 percent of U.S. veterans between 2004 and 2007 met established criteria for substance abuse disorders. Sadly, 21 percent of veterans who need this help are also homeless, and a full 70 percent of homeless veterans have a substance abuse problem.Why is this problem so prevalent among the military and veterans? The stresses of combat combined with the high prevalence of mental health concerns among veterans creates the perfect stage for problems with substance abuse. These problems must be addressed, because substance abuse causes serious physical damage to the addicted veteran. It can also make holding a job nearly impossible, and lack of gainful employment often leads to loss of housing, adding to the veteran homelessness crisis.In addition, substance abuse can increase the risk of suicidal thoughts and tendencies among veterans. It makes relationships with family and friends challenging, and becomes the overriding focus of the veteran’s life.Why are so many veterans turning to drugs and alcohol? For some, it is a secondary response to mental health concerns like depression and PTSD. In fact, over a fifth of all veterans who struggle from PTSD will go on to develop a substance abuse problem, according to the National Center for PTSD. When the symptoms of the mental health concern hit, turning to drugs or alcohol can help the veteran temporarily avoid the bad memories or feelings, but the result is a dependency that adds to the vet’s mental health problems.Others find that they can cover up the emotional pain caused by trauma through the deadening effects of alcohol and drugs. Many are dealing with painful physical injuries, and become addicted to drugs as they learn to cope with their new physical disabilities.Drug and alcohol abuse problems are serious and need to be addressed quickly, but the good news is that there is help and treatment for those who are willing to work for it. If you or a veteran you care about is dealing with substance abuse problems, here is what you need to do.
In addition to these steps, consider these resources for substance abuse help:
- Recognize the symptoms of substance abuse. Like mental health conditions, the first step in getting treatment is recognizing the symptoms. Someone struggling with substances abuse may unexpectedly lose weight, act secretively, spend money that has no purpose, give up activities once enjoyed, or exhibit abnormal mood swings.
- To get help, start with the VA Medical Center. Every VA medical center has someone on staff who can diagnose substance abuse disorders and recommend the right course of treatment. Medical centers also have PTSD specialists who can diagnose a co-occurring mental health problem that may be making the problem worse.
- Enroll in the Veterans Alcohol and Drug Dependence Rehabilitation Program. This program is open to qualified vets who are enrolled in the VA health care system and provides substance abuse treatment that is designed specifically for the unique needs of veterans.
- Call the SAMHSA National Helpline. SAMHSA operates a 24/7 helpline that offers treatment referral and information to people struggling with substance abuse disorders. This can be a good starting place for help. Call 1-800-662-HELP (4357) to get help.
- Consider private addiction treatment. For veterans who have access to funds, or who have family members who wish to pay for treatment, private addiction treatment facilities can be an option, particularly if the area has a long wait time for covered VA substance abuse treatment.
- Learn to avoid triggers. Are there certain places or people that make you think about your substance of choice? Avoid them. If you’re struggling with alcohol consumption, for example, don’t go hang out at the bar. This will help you say "no" more easily.
- Get accountability. Whether it's through your therapist or a trusted friend, accountability will be key when fighting a substance abuse problem. Knowing that someone is going to check up on you will help you make better decisions.
Mental Health and Substance Abuse: There Is HopeRecovering from the trauma of war can create mental health concerns for many veterans. While getting free from those concerns is not easy, it is important for modern vets to understand that there is hope. With the help available from these and other resources, today's vets can get on the path to recovery, with support and help on every side. If you are struggling with mental health concerns, reach out to an organization or friend who is ready to help you, and start making choices that will improve your mental and physical health today. If you are noticing signs of a problem in someone you care about, don't wait. Ignoring mental health concerns can lead to a lifetime of struggle. Reach out, be the difference in that person's life, and use these resources to start the path of healing.