Depression Taking Toll on Returning U.S. Vets

Those troubles included physical or mental abuse. For example, 56 percent of soldiers with current or recently separated partners reported severe conflicts with partners resulting in "shouting, pushing or shoving," and 35 percent felt their partner was now fearful of them.

Two-thirds of married or co-habitating veterans said that several episodes of "family conflict" or "readjustment" occurred each week, and nearly 36 percent said they were now "unsure about their role" in the home.

That's a common scenario, Gibbs said.

"Research from the '90s that came about as a result of the Desert Storm deployments gave us a lot of evidence of issues like this, evidence of behavioral problems by children, anxiety on the part of spouses and of how difficult it is for everyone to adjust to new roles, or a change in roles, once a soldier returns," she explained.

Often, children have changed over a deployment and a returning parent may not understand this, Gibbs said. "Time doesn't stand still for families. Especially adolescents, who change so quickly in the space of a year -- you can expect it to be very tough [sometimes] for parents and adolescents to get back in tune with each other," she said.

A veterans' family may not understand how the war has changed him or her, either. "They may anticipate that the veteran will be happy, like the old person that went off to war," Sayers said.

He stressed that because the men and women in the study had not had a psychiatric assessment prior to their deployment, it is impossible to tell if the depression was caused by the war.

"I'm certainly not saying in the study that what they are feeling is directly attributable to their war experiences," Sayers said. "However, we do know that increased exposure to wartime trauma does increase risk for all kinds of mental-health issues."

The important thing, the experts said, is to recognize problems early and get veterans the help they need.

That's not always easy, though, because "one of the hallmarks of depression is that people may not recognize that it's a problem that they can get help with," Gibbs pointed out.

That's where the support of family and friends comes in, the experts said.

"The issue here is to gently encourage the veteran to seek treatment, to offer to be involved," Sayers said. "These offers may need to be repeated. It's often not useful to insist or push the veteran to get treatment, but to just make it easy for them to seek treatment if they sense that it is what [they] need."

He said the Veterans Administration does have good outreach and treatment programs in place, to help soldiers and their family members who might suffer from these types of problems.

In the meantime, Gibbs said, American families, for the most part, are winning "the war at home."

"Military families do a tremendous job in getting through these very tough experiences -- most of them do a wonderful job," she said. "These experiences are understandably quite tough, and this kind of study shows the importance of family members getting help when they need it."

More information

For more on mental health services available to veterans, visit the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

SOURCES: Steven Sayers, Ph.D., assistant professor, psychology in psychiatry and medicine, University of Pennsylvania, and clinical psychologist, Mental Illness Research, Education & Clinical Center, Philadelphia VA Medical Center; Deborah Gibbs, M.S.P.H., senior analyst, Children and Families Program, RTI International, Research Triangle Park, N.C., Aug. 17, 2007, presentation, American Psychological Association annual meeting, San Francisco

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