- Increased risk for severe mental health challenges
- While overall rates of mental health challenges among active duty military and veterans are similar to those of the general population, active duty service members and veterans are more likely to experience specific, more severe mental health conditions like PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and major depression than civilians.
- Reintegration challenges
- Reintegrating back into life after deployment can be very challenging. Veterans may struggle with mental health issues connected to isolation, unemployment or underemployment, homelessness, or changes in family life and routine.
- Barriers to mental health support
- More than half of veterans who need mental health support don’t receive it, because of barriers like inability to access resources due to location, finances or lack of information, and the fear that help-seeking will be viewed as a sign of weakness.
- Accurate representation is key
- Storytelling around service members and veterans can have a positive impact by including the full range of mental health challenges (not just PTSD related to deployment and combat), accurately representing the diversity of the military community, portraying help-seeking as a sign of strength, depicting effective treatment and support networks for service members and veterans, and ensuring service members and veterans know there is hope.
Portray a Range of Mental Health Experiences
- Show that service members and veterans face a range of mental health challenges experienced by many Americans.
- While entertainment storylines about mental health and the military community sometimes focus on PTSD and other struggles related to deployment and combat, it’s helpful for these communities to see other aspects of their mental health experience reflected in content, including “non-heroic” narratives.
- Storylines should reflect the diversity of service members and their unique experiences, especially that of female service members and veterans.
- Female service members are the fastest-growing segment of the military community and recent data shows that some are dealing with escalating problems like military sexual trauma (MST), self-injury, and suicidal ideation. Seeing these types of experiences reflected in storylines can help these individuals realize they are not alone and that there are ways to get help.
Show Conversations About Mental Health and Help-Seeking
- Normalize discussions among veterans with similar lived experience. According to military mental health advocates talking to other veterans with similar experiences can be a powerful starting point. Illustrating conversations between veterans and civilians can bridge understanding between the two groups. Research shows storylines can help model and normalize those important conversations.
Depict Effective, Realistic Help-Seeking and Treatment
- Portray treatment with mental health professionals who have the appropriate training or lived experience to support veterans. Research shows that the majority of veterans are reluctant to seek help because of fears about confidentiality, impact on job/employment, stigma, or the belief that mental health professionals won’t understand their experiences or provide effective support. Portraying treatment with mental health professionals who do have the training or lived experience to be effective can help normalize help-seeking for this audience.
- Share resources such as the Veterans Crisis Line and peer support groups.
Represent the Complex Causes of Mental Health Challenges
- Work with advisors and those with lived experience to show the range of causes of mental health challenges for service members and veterans. Stories sometimes focus on how combat-related experiences and the transition back to civilian life can impact mental health, but it’s important to also depict how factors prior to enlistment and/or deployment, such as childhood trauma, and pre-existing conditions like depression or anxiety, can impact overall mental health.
Move Past Stereotypes
- Avoid the perception that all veterans are broken, injured, or have mental health issues. Military service can also have a positive impact on mental health. Military service can provide a sense of purpose and community, both of which are important protective factors.
- Ensure that portrayals of PTSD do not reinforce associations with violence. While anger and reactiveness can be symptoms of PTSD, individuals experiencing this condition are no more likely to become violent or harm others than anyone else. Work closely with advisors when depicting PTSD to properly represent the condition and avoid reinforcing the harmful stereotype of veterans being dangerous or violent.
Use the Expert Directory to find partners who can inform nuanced, accurate representation of military and veteran’s mental health.
The military community includes those serving military active duty (full-time duty in the active military service of the United States), those serving reserve duty (a part-time role that enables service members to keep their civilian careers while training near home), and veterans (former members of the Armed Forces of the United States who served on active duty and were discharged under conditions that were not dishonorable).
Overall, the prevalence of mental health challenges among active duty service members and veterans is similar to the general population, and the structure and community associated with military service can strengthen mental health. However, active duty service members and veterans are more likely to experience specific, more severe mental health conditions like PTSD and major depression than civilians. It is worth noting that older veterans (55+) who may have been drafted have different experiences and issues than their younger military counterparts who volunteered to serve.
Active duty service members face unique mental health challenges. For example, military sexual trauma (MST) is a major mental health risk factor. Reports of sexual assault or harassment during military service have increased by a reported 40% between 2016 and 2018, and in 2018, 20,500 service members were sexually assaulted or raped. MST is frequently associated with depression and substance use disorders, and MST survivors who identify as members of marginalized groups (including racial, ethnic, gender, and sexual minorities) may be at particular risk for distress and suicide. Although rates of MST are higher among women, there are significant numbers of men who are MST survivors as well.
Families of service members, especially children of parents who are deployed, are also at increased risk for mental health challenges including anxiety and depression. Deployment has been associated with mental health challenges in military families, behavioral problems in children, higher risk of divorce, and higher rates of suicide. This may be due to changes in family dynamics and roles, especially related to parenting, which can add significant stress to the family system.
Military veterans are at higher risk for PTSD, depression, substance use disorder, and suicide than civilians or active duty service members — especially older veterans (55+) and those who have experienced combat exposure. The Department of Veteran Affairs highlights common mental health challenges associated with the transition from active duty to civilian life, including:
- Reconnecting with friends and family members who don’t have experience with deployment, combat, and/or military service
- Adjusting to changes in routine or daily life that occurred during deployment
- Unemployment, underemployment, or working in an environment that is not as structured as active duty military service
Traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) also contribute to mental health challenges among veterans. Research shows that experiencing a TBI doubles the likelihood that a veteran will suffer from PTSD at some point in their life. Veterans with multiple TBIs have even higher rates of PTSD, depression, and suicidal ideation.
Fewer than 50% of veterans in need of professional mental health support receive any treatment, despite the mental health services offered by Veterans Affairs (VA). Barriers to help-seeking among veterans include:
- Lack of access to treatment, such as geographical location or wait times to receive services through the VA. Many veterans live in rural areas where treatment options may be limited.
- Misconceptions about treatment, like mistrust in the VA and its services or the belief that information shared in a therapeutic setting will not be kept confidential or could impact an individual’s ability to serve in the military in the future.
- Stigma or self-perceived stigma, including the belief that an individual should push through mental health challenges on their own. Research shows that nearly 90% of young adult veterans would not view someone as weak for receiving treatment, but almost half believe that they would be viewed as weak by others for accessing treatment.
Untreated mental health conditions among veterans can lead to negative outcomes like homelessness and incarceration. While homelessness among veterans has declined, veterans are still more likely to experience homelessness than civilians and represent approximately 10% of the homeless population. Homeless veterans are most likely to be male, primarily from Hispanic and Black communities, and have an untreated mental health condition. Studies have also estimated that 8% of inmates in local jails and state and federal prisons are veterans, and more than half of incarcerated veterans have mental health conditions, most frequently PTSD, depression, anxiety, and substance use disorder.
Facts and Stats