Some veterans develop depression due to the stress of military service, but certain treatment approaches can effectively reduce symptoms.
Veterans are exposed to stress and potential sources of trauma on the job, which can affect their mental health. Some veterans may develop depression symptoms in response to their experiences, but treatment can help them learn healthy coping skills and overcome the effects of depression.
How Common Is Depression in Veterans?
A 2019 study in the Journal of Affective Disorders provides some of the latest data on depression prevalence in veterans. The study showed that 9.6% of veterans had depression, slightly higher than the 6.7% of adults in the U.S. general population who experience depression within a given year. However, not all research shows such high rates of depression in veterans. A second study published in the same journal found that just 4.8% of veterans had depression when data was collected, and 3.4% met the criteria for both depression and PTSD.
While prevalence rates can differ by sample, the truth is that veterans may be prone to depression, especially if they have risk factors for this mental health condition. Studies show that among veterans from Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) and Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF), those with an addiction are three to four times more likely to be diagnosed with depression. This shows a strong overlap between depression and substance abuse in veterans.
Finally, depression rates are higher when looking at the number of veterans who experience depression at some point in their lives rather than at a specific moment. Research shows that the lifetime prevalence of depression in female veterans is 46.5%, compared to 36.3% for males.
Depression Symptoms in Veterans
For a veteran to be diagnosed with depression, they must meet the diagnostic criteria for the disorder. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition, states that a person must show at least five symptoms to be diagnosed with depression. Some of these symptoms may be more common in veterans than others.
The symptoms of depression are as follows:
- Depressed mood
- Lack of interest in or pleasure with usual activities and hobbies
- Either losing or gaining a significant amount of weight
- Sleep disruptions, which may manifest as either sleeping too much or too little
- Changes in movement patterns, which can involve either slowed movements or excessive movements like pacing
- Lack of energy
- Feeling worthless or guilty
- Having difficulty with cognitive tasks like thinking and concentration
- Thoughts of suicide
According to research on veterans, some depression symptoms are more common than others in this population. Consider the following veterans depression statistics:
- At least several days a week, 16.68% of veterans have little interest in their usual activities.
- Several days out of the week, 17.79% of veterans feel depressed or helpless.
- Nearly every day, 9.13% of veterans have trouble sleeping or sleep too much.
- Several days per week, 32.25% of veterans feel tired or have no energy.
- Several days a week, 16.1% of veterans have a poor or too big of an appetite.
Loss of interest in usual activities, feelings of depression or helplessness, problems with sleep and appetite and lack of energy are common symptoms of depression in veterans. In contrast, veterans are less likely to experience suicidal thoughts, as just 2.92% report feeling better off dead several days out of the week.
Signs of Veteran Depression
A veteran with depression may show the following signs:
- Withdrawing from friends, family and usual activities
- Failing to take care of themselves by eating regularly or maintaining a normal sleep schedule
- Complaining of having low energy levels
- Talking about themselves negatively
When veterans show signs of depression, they may fear seeking treatment because they fear stigma or believe it won’t help.
Depression Risk Factors for Veterans
While anyone can develop depression symptoms, some factors can increase the risk of developing this mental health disorder. The following depression risk factors apply to veterans:
- Being female
- Being White (compared to Black or Hispanic)
- Family poverty
- Low levels of education
- Having a substance use disorder
Treatment for Veterans With Depression
No single treatment approach works for everyone, but several depression treatments have been found effective for veterans. Treatment for depression often involves a combination of talk therapy and medication.
Research with veterans has found the following treatment approaches are effective for reducing depression symptoms:
- Interpersonal therapy: This therapy approach helps people address problems like grief, past relationship issues and interpersonal problems that are contributing to symptoms of depression. A therapist using this approach guides patients as they process these problems.
- Cognitive behavioral therapy: Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) helps people change unhelpful and distorted thinking and alter negative behavior patterns. In therapy sessions, patients learn to challenge distorted thoughts and replace them with healthier ways of thinking.
- Acceptance and commitment therapy: Acceptance and commitment therapy teaches mindfulness to help people stay attuned to the present rather than focusing on past or future worries. It also uses approaches that help patients commit to behavior changes and become more flexible in their thinking.
How To Help a Veteran With Depression
If you are concerned that a veteran in your life has symptoms of depression, it can be helpful to talk with them about getting treatment. Approach them at a time when they appear to be calm and in a positive mood. Be prepared to offer examples of specific behaviors that have made you concerned, such as noticing they are not eating or sleeping regularly.
Avoid blaming them for their problems or making them feel like you are lecturing during the conversation. Instead, come from a place of care and concern, and offer them support in entering a treatment program. It may be helpful to tell them that depression is a common mental health condition in veterans and that numerous treatment programs have been designed to meet their needs.
FORTITUDE: Specialized Treatment for Veterans
The Recovery Village Columbus offers the FORTITUDE specialty track for veterans and first responders. We offer exclusive group therapy for this group and dual diagnosis care to treat substance use disorder and depression at the same time for better outcomes. Our program provides specialized treatment alongside a full continuum of care, including medical detox, inpatient rehab and outpatient services.
The Recovery Village and the VA Community Care Network
The Recovery Village is a proud member of the VA Community Care Network (CCN) that can offer private care for veterans outside the VA healthcare system. We accept VA health insurance to cover treatment for substance abuse and co-occurring mental health needs, like depression. Let our Veteran Advocates can help you navigate the approval process for the VA CCN and get you the help you need.
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Liu, Ying; Collins, Candice; Wang, Kesheng; Xie, Xin; Bie, Ronghai. “The prevalence and trend of depression among veterans in the United States.” Journal of Affective Disorders, February 2019. Accessed April 12, 2023.
Nichter, Brandon; Norman, Sonya; Haller, Moira; Pietrzak, Robert. “Psychological burden of PTSD, depression[…] utilization.” Journal of Affective Disorders, September 2019. Accessed April 12, 2023.
Teeters, Jenni; Lancaster, Cynthia; Brown, Delisa; Back, Sudie. “Substance use disorders in military vete[…]nt challenges.” Substance Abuse and Rehabilitation, 2017. Accessed April 12, 2023.
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. “DSM-IV to DSM-5 Major Depressive Episode[…]omparison.” National Library of Medicine, June 2016. Accessed April 12, 2023.
Kumpula, Mandy, et al. “An Evaluation of the Effectiveness of Evidence-Based Psychotherapies for Depression to Reduce Suicidal Ideation among Male and Female Veterans.” Women’s Health Issues, June 2019. Accessed April 14, 2023.
Frank, Ellen; Levenson, Jessica. “Interpersonal Psychotherapy.”>” American Psychological Association, 2011. Accessed April 14, 2023.
The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.