Depression in Military Veterans: Signs, Stats & Treatments

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Depression in the military and throughout military families is not an isolated issue. It’s a widespread, systemic problem that affects countless service members across the globe. The mental health challenges faced by military personnel are often multi-faceted, rooted in the unique stresses and experiences that come with serving one’s country.

For many, the American military represents strength, courage, and resilience. But beneath the uniform and the unyielding resolve, many soldiers carry a silent battle with them, which results in mental illness.

Understanding major depressive disorder in the military requires more than acknowledging its existence. (1) It’s a complex issue that calls for empathy, education, and action from us all. Whether you’re an active duty service member or veteran experiencing depression, know that you are not alone.

Below, we’ll look at major depression in the U.S. military, offering insights into its prevalence, causes, impacts, coping strategies, treatment options, and resources available. 

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Understanding Depression: A Brief Overview

Depression is a serious mental health condition that can cause: (2)

  • Persistent feelings of sadness
  • Loss of interest in activities
  • Lack of motivation

It can also cause physical symptoms, such as: (3)

  • Changes in appetite and sleep patterns
  • Fatigue
  • Difficulty concentrating

Anyone can experience depression. However, certain factors can increase the risk of developing it, including a family history of depression, personal history of mental health issues, trauma, chronic illness, and high-stress environments.

In the context of the military, these risk factors can be compounded by the unique experiences and pressures associated with military service, like the armed forces, army, Air Force, Marines, active-duty military, or National Guard.

The Prevalence of Depression in the Military

Several studies have found that military personnel are at a higher risk of developing depression than the general population. There are numerous reasons for this, ranging from the stress of deployment to the physical and psychological toll of combat. (4)

The prevalence of depression among military personnel varies significantly across different studies, reflecting the complexities and challenges of accurately measuring and diagnosing this disorder. (5) But regardless of the exact numbers, it’s clear that depression and suicide attempts are a significant concern within the military community.

Causes of Depression Among Military Personnel

The causes of depression in the military are as diverse as the individuals who serve. Some of the most common triggers include:

  • The stress of deployment
  • The trauma of combat
  • Physical injuries
  • The challenges of reintegration into civilian life

Deployment can cause numerous stressors, such as separation from family members, exposure to hostile environments, and the constant threat of danger. (6) Witnessing or participating in violent events, losing fellow soldiers, or surviving life-threatening situations can lead to combat-related trauma, leading to significant stress and increasing the risk of depression. Both veterans and active service members can struggle with survivor’s guilt.

Physical injuries, both visible and invisible, can also contribute to the development of depression. Traumatic brain injuries, for instance, have been linked to increased rates of depression among military personnel. (7)

Lastly, the struggle to reintegrate into civilian life after service and dealing with the loss of camaraderie, purpose, and structure provided by the military can further exacerbate feelings of depression. This could affect the wellness of military personnel after they return from Iraq or other war zones.

Symptoms of Depression in Service Members and Their Spouses

Service members and their spouses, or support systems, can both experience symptoms of depression. Recognizing these signs is essential for seeking timely help and support.

Common symptoms of depression in service members may include:

  • Persistent sadness
  • Loss of interest in activities they once enjoyed
  • Changes in sleep patterns
  • Fatigue
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Irritability

They may also exhibit physical symptoms like headaches or digestive problems. In addition to these emotional and physical symptoms, service members might struggle with feelings of guilt or hopelessness and may be at an increased risk of substance abuse, drug use, or suicidal thoughts. (8)

Spouses of service members can also experience symptoms of depression and mental health disorders due to the unique challenges they face, such as frequent relocations, long deployments, and the stress of managing family responsibilities alone.

Their symptoms may mirror those of service members, including sadness, fatigue, changes in sleep or appetite, suicidal ideation, and increased irritability. Additionally, they may experience feelings of loneliness, isolation, and anxiety about their loved one’s safety. (9)

Both service members and their spouses must be aware of these signs and seek professional help when needed. Mental health support and counseling services are available to address the unique stressors that military life can present and provide strategies for managing and coping with depression.

Symptoms of Emotional Stress in Military Children

Military children often bear the weight of unique challenges, and the symptoms of emotional stress in military children can manifest in various ways.

Let’s look at the following in more detail: (10)

  • Heightened Anxiety: Military children may experience heightened anxiety, characterized by excessive worrying, restlessness, and difficulty concentrating. The uncertainties related to frequent relocations and potential parental deployments contribute to instability, fostering anxious feelings. These anxieties can impact their daily lives, affecting their ability to focus on schoolwork or engage in social activities.
  • Fear of Abandonment: The constant upheaval caused by frequent moves and the potential deployment of a parent can lead to a fear of abandonment in military children. These young individuals may grapple with feelings of insecurity, unsure of when or if their parents will return. This fear can influence their behavior, causing them to become more clingy or avoid forming deep connections with others.
  • Behavioral Changes: Emotional stress in military children can manifest in behavioral changes, including increased irritability, mood swings, and social withdrawal. (10) Coping with the unique challenges of military life may impact their ability to navigate social relationships effectively. Parents and caregivers may notice shifts in behavior, such as a normally outgoing child becoming more reserved.
  • Physical Symptoms: Emotional stress can manifest physically, leading to symptoms such as headaches or stomach aches in military children. These physical manifestations serve as indicators of the emotional toll and internal struggles these resilient individuals may be facing. Persistent physical symptoms should be addressed with sensitivity and may necessitate professional intervention to explore their underlying causes.
  • Difficulty Coping with Change: Military life often involves frequent changes, and some children may struggle to cope with the constant upheaval. Difficulty adapting to new environments, schools, and social circles can contribute to emotional stress. (10) Establishing consistent routines and providing additional support during transitional periods can assist children in adapting more effectively.
  • Social Challenges: Emotional stress may impact military children socially, making it challenging for them to form and maintain relationships. The transient nature of military life can hinder the development of long-lasting connections with peers. Encouraging participation in extracurricular activities and creating a supportive social environment can help mitigate these challenges.
  • Sleep Disturbances: The emotional stress experienced by military children may disrupt their sleep patterns. Insomnia or difficulties in maintaining a consistent sleep routine may be indicative of the emotional challenges they face. Addressing sleep disturbances is crucial for promoting overall well-being, and establishing bedtime routines can contribute to better sleep quality. (10)
  • Feelings of Isolation: Military children may experience feelings of isolation due to the unique circumstances of their lives. Separation from friends, coupled with the transient nature of military postings, can contribute to a sense of loneliness. Fostering a sense of community and providing opportunities for social connection can alleviate feelings of isolation.

Open communication, access to mental health resources, and fostering a sense of stability can play pivotal roles in promoting the well-being of these resilient young individuals.

Impact of Depression on Military Service Members

Depression can have profound effects on your relationships, physical health, and overall quality of life in the military population. If you’re still serving, it can also affect your performance on the job.

Decreased concentration, lethargy, and lack of motivation can all significantly affect a soldier’s ability to carry out their duties. Depression can also cause withdrawal and isolation, leading to strained relationships with family members, friends, and colleagues. (11)

Changes in appetite and sleep patterns, as well as fatigue, can take a toll on your quality of life. In severe cases, depression can lead to thoughts of suicide.

If you are experiencing thoughts of harming yourself or others or committing suicide, seek help from a health professional immediately. The military crisis line is available to all service members of all branches, active duty or veterans, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. You do not have to have VA benefits to call the military crisis line.

Coping Strategies for Depression in the Military

There are several coping strategies that can help you manage your symptoms and begin to get your life back.

Stress management techniques, such as mindfulness and relaxation exercises, can also be beneficial, especially if you are currently experiencing combat. (12)

Social support is another critical aspect of coping with depression. Connecting with others, whether it’s family members, friends, or professionals, can provide emotional support, reduce feelings of isolation, and create a sense of belonging. Calling home regularly while on deployment can keep you connected with your loved ones.

Treatment Options for Depression in Military Personnel

There are a variety of treatment options available for military personnel, ranging from psychotherapy and medication to alternative therapies.

Psychotherapy, or talk therapy, is a common treatment for depression. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and interpersonal therapy (IPT) are two types of psychotherapy that are particularly effective in treating depression. (13)

Medication, specifically antidepressants, can also help manage depression symptoms. (14) But it’s important to note that medication is often most effective when combined with psychotherapy.

Alternative therapies, such as yoga and acupuncture, can also be used to complement traditional treatments. They are not a substitute for psychotherapy or medication. But they can help manage stress, improve mood, and increase resilience.

Resources and Support for Military Personnel Battling Depression

Fortunately, there are numerous resources available for military personnel battling depression. These resources range from mental health services provided by the Department of Defense to non-profit organizations dedicated to supporting the mental health of military personnel.

Military OneSource offers free, confidential counseling services for active-duty, Guard, and Reserve members and their families. The Veterans Crisis Line provides 24/7, confidential support for veterans in crisis and their families.

Organizations like Operation We Are Here offer a wealth of resources, including directories of therapists who specialize in military and veteran mental health, books on coping with military-related mental health care issues, and links to other helpful organizations and services.

Unmasking the Battle Within: Depression in Military Veterans

Depression may be a part of the military experience for many, but it doesn’t have to define it. With understanding, support, and treatment, military personnel battling depression can find hope, healing, and resilience. And in doing so, they remind us of the true strength, courage, and resilience that the military represents.

Call our free 24/7 helpline today at (855) 430-9439, and join us on your journey toward a healthy and happy life again.

Author: Nam Tran, PharmD. Nam is a detailed and reliable pharmacist with a combined 14+ years of experience in medical writing, home infusion, specialty pharmacy, and hospice.

LinkedIn: Nam Tran, PharmD


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