Impacts of Military Mental Health in Families

According to the Department of Defense data from 2021, there were almost 1.2 million active-duty military service members and over three-quarters of a million reserve members. Add to that the millions of former military, active combat veterans and all of their family members, and you’ve got a mind-boggling number of Americans whose lives are directly impacted by military service.

Military personnel need to be in good physical shape, but they also need to make sure their psychological health is strong. Even the Department of Defense has come forward to prioritize the mental health of those who serve our country. They are also trying to reduce the stigma of seeking help. According to research in 2014, nearly 25% of people actively serving showed signs of a mental health condition.¹

While some service members have returned from duty without issues, many others have reported struggling with readjustment to civilian life (44%), strains in family life (48%), angry outbursts (47%), symptoms of PTSD (49%), and some loss of interest in activities of daily living (32%).²

As a member of the military, or the family member of someone who serves, prioritizing and maintaining your mental health is an important aspect of self-care. Just as daily training and improving physical health helps build a stronger body, regular mental healthcare builds a healthier and more resilient psychological and emotional life. Even high-level military commanders have come forward with their personal stories of the trauma caused by serving and how they sought treatment.³

We will go over some of the ways that military service can affect individuals and families and ways that treatment can help.

If you or a loved one are having thoughts of suicide please call the Veterans Crisis Line. They are on duty around the clock and can be reached by dialing 1-800-273-8255 and pressing 1.

Common Mental Health Issues of Military Personnel

Since the start of Operation Enduring Freedom/Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2001, over 2.5 million service people have been sent overseas to serve our country. Many of them have been deployed more than once.² Military service is inherently dangerous and stressful, even when not serving on the front lines of a conflict.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Most people are aware of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), these days, and understand that it is not a sign of weakness. In fact, PTSD can happen to anyone, though not everyone who experiences a traumatic event comes away with it.

PTSD is most often seen in people who have survived violent and unexpected events. PTSD can be caused by war, but also by being attacked, surviving a natural disaster or an accident, domestic violence, and more. Family members and those close to someone who has experienced trauma can have what is called secondary PTSD.⁴

When someone is exposed to a traumatic event, it is normal for that person to have nightmares, hyper-vigilance, and anxiety; but if those symptoms do not go away in about a month, they could be suffering from PTSD.⁴ Some of the symptoms of PTSD are:

  • Intrusive Memories: Recurring and unwanted thoughts of the event, reliving the event (also called flashbacks), dreams and nightmares of the event, and emotional and physical reactions to something that is similar or a reminder of the event.
  • Negative Changes in Mood or Thinking: Hurtful thoughts about yourself or other people, hopelessness, memory problems, trouble having close relationships, feelings of detachment, loss of interest in things that used to bring pleasure, feelings of numbness, and disengagement.
  • Avoidance: Persistently avoiding talking about or thinking about the event and avoiding places that might cause reminders of the event.
  • New Emotional and Physical Reactions: An overactive startle or fear response, being on-guard or vigilant, self-harmful behaviors such as substance use or recklessness, poor sleep, trouble concentrating, deep feelings of guilt and shame, and outbursts of anger or aggression.

If these symptoms have been occurring for over a month, seek professional help. The longer PTSD goes on, the harder it can be to treat it, but it’s never too late to get the help you need.⁵

Depression in Veterans and Active Military

When most people think of mental health issues affecting members of the military, PTSD is the one that seems most common. In fact, depression—and its related symptoms—is actually much more common.

Many aspects of military life can be factors in depression. Everything from the stress of basic training to being separated from home and support systems, being deployed to dangerous settings, worrying about issues at home, and the obvious stress of combat can lead to depression.

Depression can express itself in many ways, some obvious like an overall depressed mood, but there are many other signs and symptoms such as:

  • Lack of interest or caring about things that used to bring pleasure
  • Sleeping a lot or very poor sleep
  • Lack of appetite or overeating
  • Slowed speech, decreased movement, trouble thinking (brain fog)
  • Thoughts of worthlessness or suicide
  • Vague thoughts of not wanting to be alive or thoughts like “I don’t care if I wake up tomorrow” (passive suicidal ideation)⁴

Symptoms of depression can be challenging to identify, and it can often be overlooked even by doctors, so a thorough screening by a mental health professional is an important first step. There are many treatments and medications available, and it may take time and some trial and error to find the right treatment protocol.

The danger of suicide is very real when someone is struggling with depression. Reach out for help immediately if you are having suicidal thoughts or someone you care about has made suicidal statements. If there is a danger of suicide, you can always present yourself at any hospital emergency room to get help.

Other Mental Health Issues of Members of the Military

Traumatic brain injuries (TBI) are usually a result of some sort of blow to the head and can result in long-term issues. Trouble with memory, mood swings, and problems with thinking are challenging on their own, but they can also lead to increased rates of depression and anxiety.

Caring for Yourself and Your Fellow Soldiers

As a soldier or member of the military, you are part of a fellowship of soldiers who bond in ways that outsiders can’t understand. There can be a fear of letting others down, which can lead to a fear of admitting you are struggling. There can also be concerns about how a diagnosis could affect your career or other aspects of your life.

The Department of Defense has stated that untreated mental health conditions pose a threat to the safety of military members.¹ So getting help is not just for you; it is for the well-being of your fellow service members and your loved ones. Here at Balance Treatment Center, we strongly believe that our clients are not just their diagnoses. We address the whole person and work to find the underlying issues causing the dysregulation and suffering so that growth and healing can flourish. We are contracted with Tricare here to provide in-network support for the military and their spouses and family. Contact us today to learn more about our mental health treatment programs.