The Rates of PTSD in Military Veterans

veteran looking depressed

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Regardless of which war or conflict you look at, high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in veterans have been found. Throughout history, people have recognized that exposure to combat situations can negatively impact the mental health of those involved in these situations.

In fact, the diagnosis of PTSD historically originates from observations of the effect of combat on soldiers. The grouping of symptoms that we now refer to as PTSD has been described in the past as "combat fatigue," "shell shock," or "war neurosis."

For this reason, researchers have been particularly interested in examining the extent to which PTSD occurs among veterans. Rates of PTSD in Vietnam veterans, Persian Gulf War veterans, and Iraq War veterans are provided below.

PTSD in Vietnam Veterans

In 1983, a mandate set forth by Congress required the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to conduct a study to better understand the psychological effects of being in combat in the Vietnam War. The National Vietnam Veterans Readjustment Study (NVVRS) found that approximately 15% of the 2.7 million Americans who served in the Vietnam war had PTSD.

The incidence over a lifetime following involvement in the Vietnam war, however, is much greater. Approximately 30% of men and 27% of women developed some form of partial PTSD at some point in their life following Vietnam.

Today, some 40 years later, new findings reported by the National Vietnam Veterans Longitudinal Study (NVVLS) indicate that approximately 271,000 Vietnam veterans still suffer from PTSD and other major depressive disorders, indicating an ongoing need for mental health services for veterans after returning home from combat. Another congressional mandate, the NVVLS surveyed many of the Vietnam veterans who were previously assessed by the NVVRS, since a significant number of those participants had since passed away.

PTSD in Persian Gulf War Veterans

Although the Persian Gulf War was brief, its impact was no less traumatic than other wars. From the time the Persian Gulf War ended in 1991 to now, veterans have reported a number of physical and mental health problems.

Studies examining the mental health of Persian Gulf War veterans are mixed, with some findings indicating that the rates of PTSD stemming from the Gulf war were lower than other wars, ranging from 8–16%. Some of these estimated rates are higher than what has been found among veterans not deployed to the Persian Gulf.

PTSD in Iraq and Afghanistan Conflict Veterans

The conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan are ongoing. That's why the full the impact the war has had on the mental health of soldiers in Iraq is not yet known.

A study published in 2004 looked at members of four United States combat infantry units (three Army units and one Marine unit) who had served in Iraq and Afghanistan and found that soldiers who were deployed to Iraq had more exposure to combat than those deployed to Afghanistan. As such, of the veterans who participated in the study, there was greater prevalence of PTSD among those who returned from Iraq (15–17%) versus those who returned from Afghanistan (11%).

One study of National Guard Soldiers highlighted the persistent effects of combat by looking at the rates of PTSD both three months and 12 months post-deployment. Rates of nine to 31% were noted overall, but of even more importance was the persistence of symptoms a year after return. In this study, there was also a high rate of alcohol misuse illustrating self-medication—a risky form of self-treatment for PTSD.

PTSD Treatment for Veterans

The treatment of PTSD is multidimensional, including medication, therapy, and in recent years, mindfulness-based treatments have provided an alternative to managing both PTSD and chronic pain.

While some researchers have said that exposure therapy, which is trauma focused, is not always advisable for most veterans with PTSD, a 2019 study suggested otherwise. The study was the first to conclude that exposure therapy did not increase the risk of exacerbation of PTSD symptoms among participants.

Conclusion

Regardless of the war, soldiers involved in combat consistently show high rates of PTSD. If you are a veteran, the National Center for PTSD provides some excellent information on coping with the residual effects of war. If you are returning from Iraq, information about VA Transition Centers and additional resources are also provided. And, if you are a family member of a veteran, important information is also available pertaining to living with and caring for someone with PTSD.

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Article Sources

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  9. Boyd JE, Lanius RA, McKinnon MC. Mindfulness-based treatments for posttraumatic stress disorder: a review of the treatment literature and neurobiological evidence. J Psychiatry Neurosci. 2018;43(1):7–25. doi:10.1503/jpn.170021

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