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Examining the Mental Health and Addiction Issues Faced by Veterans


Today we honor the approximately 1.4 million people serving in the United States Armed Forces as well as the veterans who are no longer actively serving. The contributions this special group has made, and the strength required to make them, are so great that it is hard to imagine that such a strong community is vulnerable to anything. The unfortunate reality is, however, that many of these exceptional men and women survived bullets and bombs only to come home with the unseen wounds of trauma, depression, anxiety and substance use.


Veterans are at a significantly higher risk for mental illness than the rest of the population. This can, and often does, lead to problems like addiction, unemployment, incarceration, family estrangement, homelessness, and poverty. While it’s an appropriate gesture to thank veterans for their service, it might be more meaningful if we opened a conversation about what many of them are still going through.


The Lasting Impact of Trauma


The US Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that between seven and eight percent of Americans suffer from some form of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) at some point in their lives. This number is twice as high among veterans. Vietnam veterans are suffering from PTSD at rate of 15 percent. A study published just two months ago in JAMA Psychiatry revealed that 40 years after service, more than 270,000 Vietnam veterans still suffer from full PTSD plus sub-threshold war-zone PTSD, one-third of whom have current major depressive disorder, 40 or more years after the war. Meanwhile 20 percent of Iraq war veterans are stricken with this disease, many of whom have only just begun to feel its effects.


Addiction and Poverty: The Rippling Effects of Untreated Mental Illness


Data from the American Psychiatric Association reveals that less than half of all veterans who report symptoms of combat-related PTSD seek treatment. The United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) estimates that nearly 50,000 veterans are homeless, three quarters of whom suffer from a substance use or other mental health disorder.


There is a clear relationship between military service-related trauma and the abuse of alcohol and other drugs. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, 30 percent of veterans seeking treatment for substance use disorder also have PTSD. The Veterans Healing Initiative reports that veterans who experience combat are significantly more likely to misuse alcohol. Data from the army reveals that drugs and alcohol are responsible for more than 63 percent of suicide attempts among active troops.


Fear of Diagnosis


A 2014 study published in the JAMA Psychiatry estimated that 25 percent of active troops showed signs of a mental health condition. Many service people fail to disclose these symptoms and wind up never getting the help they need over the simple fear of what a diagnosis will do to their careers. Symptoms get worse over time and, as these men and women are discharged, their illnesses stand in the way of getting jobs, re-connecting with their families and communities, continuing their education, and living healthy lives. Many sufferers walk around for years without ever getting the help they need, if they ever do at all.


Are We Doing Enough to Protect our Protectors?


In addition to our current active ground-wars, the United States deployed special operations forces to 135 countries this year alone. A continuous point of contention among active and returning servicemen and military advocacy groups, are the many shortcomings in addressing the overall healthcare needs of our veterans after their service. These failures have been well documented, including the 2007 landmark findings of neglect at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.


According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), only 50% of returning service members who need mental health treatment seek it, and only slightly more than half of them receive adequate care.


Many say that we simply are not doing enough to preserve the mental health of our returning servicemen and women. When we examine the impact that trauma-related mental illness has had on their quality of life, and the overwhelming lack of treatment, it’s hard to argue.


Each member of our military deserves our heartfelt thanks and empathy, but the care they receive when they return home should match the contributions they made during their service.


As we celebrate Veterans Day, The Gardens at Lake Worth would like to extend our deepest gratitude to all who have served.