The Impact of War: Mental Health of Veterans and Their Families

An article on the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) website details research on some of the ways deployment can distress service members, their spouses and their children. The VAreports that, by the end of 2008, 1.7 million Americans had served in Iraq and Afghanistan, and 43 percent of active-duty service members have children. After returning home, these veterans may cope with depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, traumatic brain injury and other conditions as a result of their service, and these issues affect not only the service member, but also their spouses, children, extended families and friends.

Treatment is key for veterans and their families to recover from trauma and mental health issues. In a survey of veterans suffering from PTSD, almost 80 percent wanted their families to be more involved in their recovery process, highlighting the need for spouses, children and other family members to stand with their service members. During their deployment, service members may feel alone and isolated from their families; sometimes, it may take the efforts of the entire family to ensure this feeling doesn’t persist even after our veterans have come home.

Beyond mental health issues, veterans and their families must also face a number of other challenges related to war. The parent who is not deployed often has to take on complete responsibility for the care of the home, children and finances. This can leave spouses feeling anxious, lonely, sad and overwhelmed. Studies also indicate that post-deployment families often face marital problems, domestic violence, sexual issues, depression and sleep disturbances.

In addition, the veteran’s spouse must deal with possible behavioral issues in their children, which can be related to the deployed parents’ absence. Depending on the age and developmental stage of the child, this can manifest in temper tantrums, separation anxiety, changes in eating habits, a decline in academic performance, mood changes, physical complaints, anger, acting out or apathy.

In an attempt to address some of the issues mentioned above, the VA offers services and information for returning veterans, their family and friends, and even services specifically for children. For service members, the VA website has an entire section dedicated to mental health, which includes information on issues commonly faced by returning veterans, such as PTSD and substance abuse, and even the number of a crisis hotline and a confidential text-based web chat. The VA website also has a section for families, which includes information on PTSD, depression and even parenting.

The USC School of Social Work is committed to helping veterans and their families successfully transition back into civilian life. Our military social work curriculum focuses on evidence-based clinical practices and military culture, which has expanded to innovative online education and training using advanced virtual reality technology, along with promising research-based mental health interventions. Additionally, the school established the Center for Innovation and Research on Veterans and Military Families, which utilizes research, education and community outreach to inform decision-makers on policy issues affecting veterans and their families. Among those issues is a focus on rapidly increasing the number of clinical social workers and behavioral health providers trained to treat the challenges troops, veterans and their families face, as well as mental health research that can be directly translated into clinical practice.