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Retirees and active duty military personnel need accessible and effective mental health services. Their life may depend on it.

Suicide is a public health issue and one of the leading causes of death in the United States, especially among veterans.

The US Department of Veterans Affairs reports that more than 45,000 adults died by suicide in 2019, with veterans accounting for just over 6,000 suicides, or nearly 14% of all adult suicides.

That’s an average of 17 veterans who die by suicide every day.

Whether or not you have retirees or active duty military in your life, it is important to be aware of the mental health issues they face during and after their military service.

Understanding the effects of military service on mental health can help us better serve those who serve their country. Their life may be at stake.

How is mental health generally viewed and addressed within the military – and what progress has been made?

To answer these questions and more, Psych Central spoke with retired Air Force Capt. Craig Bryan, PsyD, ABPP, clinical psychologist, professor, and director of the Department’s Recovery and Resilience Division. of Psychiatry from the Ohio State University College of Medicine. .

He says mental health care and access can vary from one branch of the military to another depending on factors such as rank and culture. But there are also commonalities.

Here are some of the most common shared experiences across the five branches of the military.

Stigma and perception

One of the most commonly reported reasons for poor mental health in the military can be attributed to stigma.

According to a 2015 study, approximately 60% of military personnel with mental health issues do not seek help. And research from 2021 shows a similar trend, noting that US veterans seeking mental health care are a minority.

The stigma surrounding mental health care may cause some active duty personnel to worry about how they will be perceived if they seek help. They might think that others view them as “weak” or “unfit” for the job.

It is possible that this mentality will continue even in retirement.

Barriers to treatment

A 2015 study suggests that most deployed soldiers with mental health conditions are not in treatment. The authors note that addressing barriers to treatment could help boost awareness efforts and ultimately save lives.

Here, Bryan addresses the following barriers to mental health care in the military:

Lack of access

According to Bryan, the availability of professional mental health care can vary by region and protocol.

For example, larger military bases may have more professionals, but also greater demand due to more military personnel. And when there is high demand for mental health services but a lack of professionals to provide care, longer wait times for treatment and reduced continuity of care can often result.

“In some areas, the demand for mental health services so far exceeds the supply of mental health professionals that appointments can only be scheduled once every few weeks,” says Byran.

Lack of access or care can also lead to ineffective treatments, increasing the risk of suicide or self-harm.

“Medications aren’t as effective as suicide-focused psychotherapies, like brief cognitive-behavioral therapy for suicide prevention (BCBT), which typically requires scheduled appointments once a week,” says Bryan.

If a mental health clinic can only see a service member once every few weeks, medication may be prescribed to accommodate scheduling constraints, Bryan adds.

too many resources

According to Bryan, there are oftenoh a lot mental health resources for veterans and active duty military.

“That’s actually one of the biggest problems with this community — there are so many resources out there that it can be overwhelming,” he says. “Further complicating the issue is that there is no quality assurance method available to help military personnel and veterans distinguish between legitimate and questionable resources.”

Fear of consequences

“One of the unique issues with mental health issues in the military is the fear of the negative consequences of reporting these issues and seeking mental health treatment,” Bryan says.

Some fears include:

  • restriction of duties
  • loss of special service status
  • military medical separation

Bryan adds that these are issues that civilians generally don’t have to worry about.

Yet in recent years, the Department of Defense (DoD) has encouraged military service members to seek mental health care.

The 2013 policies and procedures established by the DoD are intended to help reduce the stigma associated with service members seeking and receiving mental health services.

“The use of mental health services is considered, to the extent possible, comparable to the use of other medical and health services,” DoD rules say.

Additionally, the American Psychological Association cites a 2006 study, which found that 97% of staff seeking mental health treatment experienced no negative career impact.

Not disclosing health issues can lead to serious mental health issues. Veterans and active duty personnel face unique physical and mental health challenges.

Mental and physical health issues

Members of the military are more likely to live with specific mental health issues, including, but not limited to:

For those on active duty, a 2014 study suggests that three or more deployments are positively correlated with mental health disorders, specifically:

The same study notes that people with PTSD and MDD also have an increased risk of:

  • death from homicide, injury and cardiovascular disease
  • medical illness
  • smoking and drug addiction
  • decrease in employment and labor productivity
  • marital and family dysfunction
  • roaming

Physical health issues, such as chronic pain or traumatic brain injury (TBI), can also negatively impact mental health.

“PTSD and TBI are more common in the military than in civilians and are considered ‘characteristic injuries’ of military service,” says Bryan.


Adequate physical and mental health support is essential for suicide prevention among veterans and serving members.

With respect to the high suicide rates in the US military, a myriad of risk factors and protective measures have been identified.

Research from 2021 shows that common risk factors include:

  • stressors (eg, physical pain, leadership conflicts, change of duty station)
  • comorbid mental health disorders
  • combat exposure
  • access to lethal weapons
  • be a young man (17 to 19 years old)
  • to be a female veteran
  • veterans who served in the Marines and Army

The same research suggests that protective factors include:

“Part of the reason we’re not doing better at preventing suicide is because we mistakenly view it as a mental health issue in individuals,” says Bryan. “Social, organizational and environmental factors also play a major role – perhaps even a bigger role than mental health factors.”

According to Bryan, addressing the environmental and organizational factors that degrade a person’s quality of life is necessary to improve military health and well-being.

He adds that limiting or reducing access to firearms and other lethal methods for suicide attempts could also have a pronounced impact on suicide prevention.

Many mental health resources are available for active military members, veterans, and military families. Additionally, speaking with a therapist, primary care physician, or behavioral health professional can also help.

Resources for Active Service Members

For currently serving military personnel, Bryan recommends the following resources:

  • Department of Defense (DoD) Mental Health Professionals
  • Military Family Life Consultants (MFLC)
  • Military OneSource: 1-800-342-9647

Other resources include:

Resources for veterans

For veterans, Bryan says the best resource is the US Veterans Affairs Department (VA). But not all veterans are eligible to receive mental health treatment from the VA.

For this reason, resources outside of DoD and AV are included below.

Resources for military families

Those who serve their country fight battles both on and off the battlefield.

Progress has been made in military mental health care, but more work needs to be done to help reduce the number of veterans who die by suicide.

And more progress is coming, according to Jackie Speier, chair of the House Armed Services Personnel Subcommittee, which has jurisdiction over Department of Defense (DoD) policies and programs related to military health care. .

“We have to question ourselves and change what we are doing because it is not working. We need to assess the effectiveness of various programs across the department and make bold changes,” Speir said at the March 2022 military personnel subcommittee hearing.

“We must respond to this reality by preventing, detecting and treating suicide risk from the moment an individual joins the military and throughout their career.

At the same hearing, Bonnie Carroll, President and Founder of TAPS, called for the following changes:

  • Mandate leadership training on suicide prevention and mental health awareness.
  • Hold accountable those who stigmatize, confuse, isolate, intimidate or punish.
  • De-stigmatize help-seeking behaviors.
  • Break down barriers to treatment.
  • Standardize and improve access to mental health services.

Support is available if you or someone you know has served in the military and is experiencing mental health issues. Asking for help can be difficult, but it can save lives.

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