Veterans’ Struggles After Military Service

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Updated: March 23, 2020 

Transitioning from a service member to a civilian can be a journey that is fraught with challenges. Issues veterans face today include physical and mental health struggles, employment and financial struggles, and veteran homelessness. Some may even face thoughts of suicide. To top it off, stigmas surrounding mental health, suicide, and asking for help can keep veterans from getting treatment.

The Transition from Military to Civilian Life

The return to civilian life proves challenging for many veterans. Between 27% and 44% of veterans say that the transition from military to civilian life was difficult for them.1 A study conducted by the Pew Research Center found various factors that correlate with the perceived difficulty of transitioning from military to civilian life.

Common struggles for veterans returning home from war that make transitioning more difficult include:1

  • Experiencing some kind of traumatic event.
  • Being injured in the line of duty.
  • Serving in the armed forces after 9/11.
  • Serving after 9/11 and being married.
  • Experiencing combat.
  • Death of a fellow service member.

Protective factors that tend to ease the transition to civilian life include:1

  • Having religious or spiritual beliefs.
  • Being an officer.
  • Having a college degree.
  • Clearly understanding your mission during your service.

The VA has responded to these transitional difficulties by creating the VA Transitional Assistance Program (TAP) to ease veterans’ struggles after war. TAP provides education and assistance to service members who are leaving the service 1 year before their service end date or 2 years before retirement.2 If you are an active-duty service member, you can access the virtual curriculum in your Joint Knowledge Online (JKO) account using your CAC card.2

Veteran Physical and Mental Health Struggles

Veterans face many physical and mental health impairments that lead to increased struggles when transitioning to life as a civilian. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, anxiety, and substance use disorders are common mental health issues among service members and veterans.

It’s estimated that between 19% and 44% of veterans will be diagnosed with one of these disorders upon returning from combat, representing significantly higher rates those reported in the general civilian population.3

Physical and mental health impairments affect a veteran’s ability to function normally and can increase the likelihood that they will have a difficult time transitioning to life as a civilian.

Stigma’s Effects on Veteran Health

Help is available to veterans for physical and mental health issues; however, the veteran must be willing to utilize the resources that are available, and research shows that the military mental health stigma and veteran stigmas around seeking help prevent many service members and veterans from ever seeking that help.3

Stigmas about mental health, such as that those with mental health illnesses are “weak,” are associated with reduced treatment-seeking among the veteran population. Those veterans who perceived public stigma, meaning they thought others would view them negatively, are significantly less likely to reach out to mental health services available to them.3

While stigmas surrounding mental health certainly do exist, veterans may perceive the problem as worse than it is in reality. Interestingly, a large majority of veterans who believed others would view them as weak for seeking mental health treatment said they would not view others in the same way. 3

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Employment Struggles

For many service members, discharging from the military means facing the reality of unemployment. Post 9/11, female 25- to 34-year-old veterans are at the highest risk for unemployment.4 According to one study, between 4.5% and 7.9% of veterans in these groups were unemployed in 2017.4

Physical and mental health issues aside, barriers to veterans finding gainful employment include non-transferable skills and discharge status.4 Some of the training a service member receives while in the military can translate directly into a civilian job, however other service members may find that their training is not easily applied to the civilian world.4 Training that does not transfer may mean that the transitioning member will find themselves back in school or vocational training, which requires money and time.4

Veterans who do suffer from mental health issues may also face stigmas that hamper their ability to enter or stay in the workforce.

If you are a veteran who discharged under any status other than honorable you could have a very difficult time finding employment and you may be unable to receive any VA benefits.4 While not guaranteed, the VA does have a process for changing veterans’ discharge status. Find DD form 149, complete it and follow the instructions to appeal.

For veterans who have been honorably discharged, the VA offers numerous employment resources to help you look for work as a civilian.

Financial Insecurity

One study found that service members with mental health issues often have co-occurring financial issues that may be related to increased spending on drugs or alcohol to self-medicate, poor money management skills, or finding and maintaining employment.5

To see how financially prepared you are to transition from military to civilian life follow, you can complete the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s interactive quiz to determine your financial well-being.

Veteran Homelessness

The United States Interagency Council on Homelessness found that approximately 9% of individuals experiencing homelessness in the U.S are veterans.6 An estimated 38% of those veterans live without shelter either in cars or on the streets.6

Each veteran who connects with the VA for services is screened for their risk of homelessness.6 Experiences and situations that place a veteran at higher risk of homelessness include:6

  • Trauma.
  • Unemployment.
  • Poverty or financial and economic hardship.
  • Relationship problems including violence in the relationship.
  • Family or social estrangement.
  • Mental health or substance abuse issues.

Veterans experiencing homelessness may also face additional stigmas. The common but false belief that people without homes choose that lifestyle can lead to a lack of compassion on the part of society and can result in fewer innovative solutions to the problem of homelessness.10

There is also a tendency for society to refer to individuals without shelter as “the homeless,” which defines an individual by their lack of a home. Homelessness is not an identity but rather a situation that a person goes through which may very well be temporary. Acknowledging that fact can give hope to veterans who are currently without homes. That same shift in perspective from homelessness as an identity to homelessness as a temporary situation can prompt society to take action to help those in need.10

The VA is one organization taking action to address the problem of homelessness for veterans. VA programs targeting this issue housed 124,709 veterans in either housing or temporary and emergent shelter.6 The VA works with local agencies such as soup kitchens and homeless shelters to find veterans who need employment assistance, treatment for mental health or substance abuse issues, and/or shelter.8

A veteran who requires services should visit their nearest VA Medical Center or Community Resource and Referral Center or Call 1-877-4AID-VET to view resources available to them.

Veteran Suicide Risk

Research on veteran suicide has found that service members who attempt suicide do so primarily to end severe emotional suffering and pain.9 The research also indicates that:

  • Service members commit suicide at the rate of approximately one per day.9
  • Divorced and/or separated service members commit suicide at a rate that is 24% higher than their single or married counterparts.9
  • Service members with co-occurring disorders (mental health issues are 23 times more likely to attempt suicide.10

If you or someone you love is a veteran and are dealing with feelings of sadness or despair, are withdrawing from the people you love, and feel hopeless that things will change, pick up the phone now and call 1-800-273-8255 to speak to a crisis intervention specialist. Stigmas surrounding mental health, addiction, homelessness, and other issues you may be facing may make you feel alone, but remember that every single person struggles with something, and the real strength is in asking for help when you need it.  You are not alone.

There are treatment programs and resources through the VA and through private treatment centers who cater to the needs of veterans. American Addiction Centers runs two treatment programs in Hollywood, Florida and Las Vegas, Nevada that are approved community care providers with the VA. This means that qualifying veterans can receive treatment for addiction and mental health disorders in a veterans-specific program at the same rate they would pay at a VA treatment facility. Help is available and just waiting for you to reach out.

About American Addiction Centers

American Addiction Centers (AAC) offers medical treatment and believable hope for veterans. We recognize that veterans face a unique set of challenges when seeking addiction treatment; AAC’s facilities are equipped to treat individuals with PTSD and other co-occurring mental health disorders.

Salute to Recovery is AAC’s veterans substance abuse program. The program is available at Desert Hope Treatment Center in Nevada and Recovery First Treatment Center in Florida. Salute to Recovery blends AAC’s medically informed, patient-centric approach to treatment with therapies that address co-occurring disorders that may affect military veterans. Most of the staff involved in Salute to Recovery are veterans or come from military families. This helps them connect with the veterans receiving treatment and help them move towards a life in recovery.

No veteran should have to suffer in silence. There are several methods to help you find peace and start your life in recovery.

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Sources

  1. Morin, R. (2011, December 8). The difficult transition from military to civilian life.
  2. U.S Department of Veterans Affairs. (2020). Transition and economic development: Your VA transition assistance program (TAP).
  3. Kulesza, M., Pedersen, E., Corrigan, P., & Marshall, G. (2015). Help-seeking stigma and mental health treatment seeking among young adult veterans. Military Behavioral Health, 3(4), 230–239. https://doi.org/10.1080/21635781.2015.1055866
  4. National Conference of State Legislatures. (2018, July 17). Barriers to work: Veterans and military spouses.
  5. Elbogen, E.B., Johnson, S.C., Wagner, H.R., Newton, V.M., & Beckham, J.C. (2012). Financial well-being and post-deployment adjustment among Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans. Military Medicine, 177(6), 669–675. https://doi.org/10.7205/milmed-d-11-00388
  6. United States Interagency Council on Homelessness. (2018). Homelessness in America: Focus on veterans.
  7. Kamelhar, B. (2019). The Stigma Associated with Homelessness and How It Leads to Ineffective Solutions Both In and Out of the Courtroom. Georgetown Journal on Poverty Law and Policy.
  8. U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (2020). Homeless veterans.
  9. Military Suicide Research Consortium. (n.d.). MSRC news details: Study reveals top reason behind soldiers’ suicides.
  10. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2018). 2018 National survey on drug use and health: Veterans.