Mental Health And Our Vets: A Conversation That Needs To Happen


By Kristina Leigh

Since 1949, May has been observed as America’s National Mental Health Awareness Month. As our world becomes more intertwined yet somehow still fractured, populations grow alongside income disparity and poverty, and many of the world powers, including America, are drawn into protracted wars that demand a heavy military presence, mental health issues affect more and more people each day. One group that is severely affected is our returning veterans. 

Today, nearly one in four veterans is affected by mental health issues. The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) estimates that 22 vets take their lives each day. This is a tragedy. Unfortunately, because of the long-held and false stigmas associated with mental illness, those who suffer often do so in silence, afraid to seek the help they need – and deserve.

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), there are currently an estimated 23.4 million veterans in the United States. Of those:

  • 5% have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or depression, and 19.5% report experiencing traumatic brain injury (TBI) during deployment.
  • 50% of returning service members that need treatment seek it, but of those, only another 50% actually receive treatment.
  • From 2005 to 2009, 1,100 service members committed suicide, averaging 1 every 36 hours.
  • During 2009, mental and substance use disorders caused more hospitalizations among service members than any other cause.
  • During 2009, nearly 76,000 veterans experienced homelessness on a given night and about 70% of homeless veterans also have a substance use disorder.

This is just a handful of sobering data when it comes to the correlation between high rates of mental illness and substance use disorders and our growing veteran population. Despite the best efforts by the VA and Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to tackle homelessness and mental illness among our veterans, only a fraction receives housing and Federal services.

Without increased funding and program reformation, these issues will continue to plague the veteran population. In a 2014 report by the VA, young veterans are committing suicide at a rate nearly three times that of active duty service members. And while the VA has proactively worked to address these issues, failed technological advancements, poor leadership, scandals, and a lack of funding have prevented the Department from progressing along with the needs of the growing veteran population.

Veterans need a compassionate and coordinated effort when it comes to mental illness and substance use issues. Instead of feeling stigmatized and made to feel isolated from the rest of the population, programs need to be developed that are all-inclusive. This includes programs that look at the emotional and psychological effects of combat, but also address physical issues, housing services, reintegration back into the working population, training, and a public relations campaign that makes sure people are aware of the mental illness and substance use issues and challenges them to be engaged.

While our political members bicker and stall on much-needed legislation, thankfully, community-based organizations and movements are forging ahead. Many of these programs use “veterans helping veterans” services and rely on charitable donations and volunteer efforts. It can be easy to forget that basic necessities such as housing, food, healthcare, and community support are not always accessible for those who need it the most, and their lack of these resources can have serious consequences on a person’s emotional and mental health.

There are a couple things you can do to help:

  • Participate in local coalitions. Not only are there national organizations set-up for veteran assistance, but each city will have at least one community-based organization dedicated to addressing one or more veteran issues. Since I am in San Diego, there are easily more than two dozen – PCs 4 Vets, Disabled American Veterans, American Legion, Blinded Veterans Association, Homefront, and Cal-Diego Paralyzed Veterans Association – just to name a few.
  • Make a donation. All of these organizations accept donations. That $5 or $10 in your pocket can make a real difference for someone in need. Every little bit counts!
  • Join a campaign. Aside from local initiatives, there are many national campaigns that seek to address issues year-round, such as the Wounded Warrior Project, Veterans Campaign, Make The Connection, and AboutFace. Programs like these address and try to understand many of the larger, more systemic issues, such as PTSD and TBI. And while a majority of their funds come from government grants and large charitable donations, they also sponsor local events to promote social awareness. (Ever done a Tough Mudder?)
  • Finally, contact your elected official. Keep those in power accountable! Look up your elected official’s voting record and see what action, or inaction, they have taken. If you’re unsatisfied, call them out! Send them an email or, better yet, challenge them to answer through social media sites like Facebook and Twitter.

While this post mostly concentrates on the plight of veterans and mental health, let’s not forget that mental illness and substance use affects millions of people every day. An estimated 22.1% of Americans 18 and older suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year.

That’s 1 in 5 Americans who have a treatable illness.

So, the next time you are sitting at your desk at work, or out and about town, look around you. Someone right next to you may be suffering and the fact is – you would never know.

Our approach to mental illness is outdated and our failure to bring it out of the shadows will stifle any real efforts for effective, national change. Until people stop turning their heads away from the issue, change will only continue to take place on the local, community levels and through other non-traditional channels. It’s time to start the conversation.

Kristina is part of the Contributing Writer Network here at Thirty On Tap. Find out how you can join as a writer by clicking here.

{Photo by Ludovic Gauthier on Unsplash}