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How to Support Military Members and Veterans During COVID-19

It has been nearly two years since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and communities across the country continue to face COVID-19 cases and changing vaccine and mask mandates, all which impact how we live, work and learn. This has also directly affected our collective mental health.

A population particularly impacted by the pandemic is military members and veterans. Military service often fosters resilience in individuals and families; however, some service members may face mental health or substance use challenges when they return from the battlefield. The COVID-19 pandemic has unfortunately exacerbated these challenges, contributing to the onset or worsening of mental health challenges.

A study published in the National Library of Medicine found that most United States veterans “showed resilience to mental health problems nearly one year into the pandemic.” Despite this, the prevalence of general anxiety disorder positive screens has increased among middle-aged veterans and one in seven veterans reported experiencing increased distress.

The rate of military suicides has also increased by 20% over the past year; pre-pandemic, nearly 17 veterans a day died by suicide. U.S. Army and Air Force leaders believe the pandemic is likely a contributing factor.

There is an urgent need to support military members and veterans around us. You can help.

Use these tips to support military members and veterans in taking care of their mental health:

  1. Remind them to stay connected. Physical distancing since the onset of the pandemic may cause increased feelings of loneliness, sadness or anxiety. It’s important that military members and veterans stay connected to friends, family, mentors and those in similar circumstances, whether in-person or virtually. Encourage military members and veterans around you to stay connected to their support system. If you have a military member or veteran in your life, make it a priority to connect with them each week.
  2. Support a digital break. It’s easy to get caught up in watching the news every day, but the distressing images and news stories can make mental health symptoms worse. It’s important to find other enjoyable activities to do each day and check the news only for periodic updates.
  3. Provide reassurance. The pandemic can be a scary time, especially if facing a mental health or substance use challenge. It’s important that you remind the individual that they are not alone in their experiences and that there are resources are available to help them. This can make the person feel less afraid or upset and provide a feeling of hope for the future.
  4. Encourage self-care. Finding coping mechanisms to relieve feelings of stress and anxiety can be extremely beneficial in the moment and long term. Exercising regularly, eating nutritious meals and getting a good night’s sleep are a great place to start. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs also has several free mental health apps for veterans, such as COVID Coach and Mindfulness Coach, that can help military members and veterans practice breathing exercises, meditation and more.
  5. Encourage professional help. There are mental health and health professionals available that tailor their services to members of the military. Individuals can contact their local VA for same-day access to services or long-term support. There are in-person and telehealth options available.

To learn more about how to support military members, veterans and families, take Mental Health First Aid. Mental Health First Aid for Veterans teaches people how to notice and respond to signs of mental health and substance use challenges with a specific focus on the cultural factors related to military life.

You can also read these blogs from Mental Health First Aid for more information and tips to help you #BeTheDifference.

 

References

Mental Health First Aid USA. (2020). Mental Health First Aid USA for adults assisting adults. Washington, DC: National Council for Mental Wellbeing.

National Library of Medicine. (2021, June). Mental Health Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic in U.S. Military Veterans: A Population-based, Prospective Cohort Study. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/34120667/.

National Alliance on Mental Illness. (2019). 5 Ways You Can Support Veterans’ Mental Health. https://www.nami.org/Blogs/NAMI-Blog/November-2019/5-Ways-You-Can-Support-Veterans-Mental-Health.

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (2021). How to Manage Stress and Anxiety During the COVID-19 Outbreak. https://www.mentalhealth.va.gov/coronavirus/.

WTSP News. (2021, February). How COVID-19 is Affecting Veterans’ Mental Health. https://www.wtsp.com/article/news/local/covid-affecting-veteran-mental-health/67-3dab7abe-3d30-4d54-ab44-c6edde737d68.