PTSD in Veterans: How Military Service Affects Mental Health

“Many veterans struggle with memories of their experiences in the military.”

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Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, can happen to anyone. However, this anxiety disorder has a significant effect on the veteran population in particular.

“Following military service, many veterans struggle with memories of their experiences in the military,” says Amanda M. Spray, PhD, psychologist at NYU Langone Health.

What Is PTSD?

“PTSD is a psychiatric condition that results following a traumatic event,” says Dr. Spray. “A traumatic event in psychiatry is defined as a situation in which one is confronted with real or threatened death, sexual violence, or other types of life-threatening situations.”

Often, this disorder happens to people who have lived through a life-threatening event themselves. However, it can also occur if you witness someone else experiencing a life-threatening event. It may even develop if you repeatedly come across details of a traumatic event.

Notably, not everyone who lives through a traumatic event develops PTSD. About 60 percent of U.S. men and 50 percent of women experience at least one traumatic event in their lifetime, yet about 8 percent actually develop PTSD, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.

PTSD Among Veterans

Due to the traumatic experiences of combat, veterans have a very high risk of this disorder. “The National Vietnam Veterans Readjustment Study from 1988 found that … 30 percent of Vietnam veterans had met criteria for PTSD at one point in their life,” says Collin Reiff, MD, psychiatrist at NYU Langone Health.

Similarly, between 2002 and 2012, the Department of Veterans Affairs collected data that found “29 percent of veterans who served in Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom met criteria for PTSD,” says Dr. Reiff.

Additionally, there is some variation in PTSD rates in veterans based on different factors. Those on the front lines (who actively participate in combat) are more likely to experience this disorder than those in higher ranks. Additionally, about 23 percent of women have reported sexual assault during their time in the military, according to the VA. This can increase their risk of developing the disorder.

Getting Help

“If an individual believes they may have PTSD, my recommendation would be that they go to see a psychologist or a psychiatrist for a professional evaluation,” says Dr. Reiff. “There are a lot of treatments for post-traumatic stress disorder that are evidence-based and effective.”