For America’s men and women in uniform, a new battle often begins after they return home. With mental illness rates among soldiers far outpacing those found in the general population, the need for psychologists who understand their plight is critical for helping them win the fight that’s all too often faced alone, without professional help.
A Look at the Numbers
A recent study released in JAMA Psychiatry found that of nearly 5,500 active-duty, non-deployed Army personnel about 25% suffered from a mental disorder. At least 11% of that group also tested positive for more than one mental illness. While one of the study’s lead authors, Harvard epidemiologist Ronald Kessler, acknowledged that nearly half of those diagnosed with mental illness had it before they enlisted, another study found that nearly 14% of solider have had suicidal thoughts.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimates as many as 20% of veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. As many as 10% of Gulf War veterans may, as well. For Vietnam veterans, the rate is about 30 veterans out of 100.
Lending a Hand
The GI Bill® has long paved the way for returning veterans to earn college degrees. For some soldiers, dedicating their lives to helping other men and women in uniform has been the top choice.
Psychologist Harold Dickman grew up thinking he’d become an auto mechanic. After a brief stint in the Marine Corp near the end of World War II, however, he took advantage of the GI Bill to become a psychologist dedicated to helping veterans. This unexpected turn in his life’s plan had major impacts on the field and many veterans themselves. Dickman eventually became the chief of psychology services at the VA hospital in Roseburg, Ore., and was actively involved in groundbreaking work that led to better treatment of military patients with mental illness, including new approaches for helping patients with schizophrenia lead more independent lives and co-authoring the first-ever treatment guide for group therapy.
Dickman and other psychologists who got their start with the GI Bill “forever altered the psychology profession,” said Rodney R. Baker, PhD. “In that enterprise to help their fellow veterans, the psychologists themselves created an explosion of knowledge and services.”
Mental illness is a battle that many soldiers face alone. While some seek out assistance, they often don’t return for follow-up appointments because they feel a lack of connection with therapists who don’t understand the ordeals of combat or the traditions of military life, experts say.
Kittie Weber, an associate professor of psychology at New England College, said the need for veterans in the field of psychology is acute, especially in the treatment of PTSD and Traumatic Braining Injuries.
“This is in part due to a lack of truly understanding all the variables which may have impacted an individual during times of active service,” Weber said. “Adjustments back into ‘normal’ life are difficult for many military personnel and having someone who has also experienced the same type of things can be a blessing for those struggling.”
Veterans also bring keen insights into research and treatment that nonveterans simply cannot.
“They understand the mindset that is needed to do the jobs at hand and what it may take to emotionally survive the traumas that these individual face,” she said. “This ranges from harassment, sexual abuse, bullying, depersonalization, loneliness, homesickness, rage, survivor guilt – the list goes on and on.”
With an estimated 1,000 new cases of PTSD among soldier diagnosed each week and suicide rates on the rise, the need for new therapies and psychologists to lead them is also rising. Veterans themselves are well suited for the role for one particular reason, Weber said.