Veterans' Mental Health Issues

The first step toward receiving mental health care is the realization that you may need help.

Close up of a woman looking out a window, photo by Lewis Tse Pui Lung/Adobe Stock

Photo by Lewis Tse Pui Lung/Adobe Stock

Sadness, hopelessness, worthlessness. Anxiety, guilt, anger.

Veterans returning from combat often experience waves of emotions in response to surviving traumatic events, such as being attacked or seeing others wounded or killed.

Some veterans have trouble concentrating, relive traumatic events, or have thoughts of death or suicide. They may also use drugs, drink too much, or have trouble sleeping.

For many veterans, these thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are reactions to difficult experiences that fade as they adjust to civilian life. But for some, they could be signs of serious mental health problems, dubbed “invisible wounds” in a landmark RAND study.

RAND research shows that veterans who have been deployed are more likely than civilians to experience mental health conditions or cognitive injuries. In fact, one in five U.S. veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan experience PTSD or major depression.

2.8 million service members have deployed. After deployment...

48% experience strains in family life

47% feel sudden outbursts of anger

44% have difficulty adjusting to civilian life

5–39% have issues with alcohol dependence

19–23% have a traumatic brain injury

13–20% experience post-traumatic stress disorder

10–15% experience depression

The striped sections in the bars represent the range of uncertainty for those values.

Source: Bridging Gaps in Mental Health Care

Recommended policy action

Provide veterans with more resources.

Veterans should be informed consumers when choosing mental health providers and working with their care providers to ensure that they are getting the best care. Therefore, they need access to resources that help them understand what effective care entails and where to find it.

Types of veterans’ mental health issues:

General Mental Health

Living through traumatic events during a deployment can cause mental health problems that manifest in several ways—sometimes at the same time. For instance, in 2008 more than 7 percent of troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan met criteria for either PTSD or depression, and also reported experiencing a possible traumatic brain injury during their deployment.

Treatment for a combination of problems may be different than treatment for just one of them, so it’s important for veterans to describe all of their symptoms to providers.

More research on veterans' general mental health issues


Posttraumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is a condition that develops in many veterans after experiencing disturbing events.

People with PTSD relive traumatic experiences in their minds. This can be triggered by seeing a traffic accident, watching a news report, or even hearing loud noises. Symptoms of PTSD also include avoiding reminders of traumatic experiences, losing interest in relationships and activities, and feeling on edge.

More research on PTSD


Depression can interfere with veterans’ ability to work, sleep, eat, interact with others, and enjoy everyday activities. Depression can have long-term effects that make it hard to function in civilian life.

Signs of depression include feeling hopeless, losing interest in activities that used to be enjoyable, difficulty concentrating, and thoughts of death or suicide. But depression can also manifest in physical problems, such as headaches, fatigue, stomach problems, and pain.

More research on depression

Substance Use Disorder

It’s common for people with mental health issues to deal with their problems by turning to drugs or alcohol. This may provide temporary relief, but it can have long-term health consequences.

It can be difficult to know when drug or alcohol use has developed into substance use disorder. But some signs include feelings of guilt, difficulty living up to responsibilities at home or work, and the inability to control just how much one drinks. Friends and family members often notice the problem first and should help their loved one seek help.

More research on substance use disorders

Other Conditions

Veterans are more likely to be diagnosed with many common health conditions in addition to their mental health conditions. Some may also experience chronic pain or struggle to manage habits such as smoking.

Treatment for these other conditions may be integrated with the treatment plan for veterans’ mental health conditions.

More research on other mental health issues