When a Soldier Comes Home_ The Impact of Deployment on Mental Health _ Variations Psychology, Dr. Shinn.jpg

When a Soldier Comes Home:
The Impact of Deployment on Mental Health

This Memorial Day, we reflect on the men and women who have selflessly given their lives to protect our way of life. The people who watch their children being born via Facetime so that the rest of us can enjoy three-day weekends. The people that expose themselves to the worst side of humanity so that our only glimpse is what we see on the news. The sacrifices made by veterans are vast and can impact the mental health of all service men and women, whether they’ve served in active war zones or are just entering basic training. For those who have been deployed, there are several mental health challenges that they may experience when they return home.

The hardening of a soldier

Service members are trained to shut down any emotions that don’t directly serve survival. Humor, compassion, empathy, and sadness are suppressed to prepare them to kill without hesitation. They are trained to suppress their fear of death, as this is critical to their ability to function in combat. However, this emotional hardening can diminish a person’s excitement for living and impact several aspects of life when they return home.

The danger of a “strong front”

While the military may do an excellent job of preparing men and women for war zones, this emotional hardening doesn’t translate so well once they reenter civilian life. Service members are not only trained to “suck it up,” when they feel distressed, but they are also taught that asking for help is punishable. Seeking help risks losing their security clearance, missing out on career promotions, losing their weapon, or being found unfit for duty. These risks make it even more intimidating for a veteran to seek help for mental and emotional struggles.

The joy of homecoming

Most of those who are serving overseas look forward to coming home. Fortunately, 72% of soldiers express having at least a somewhat easy time readjusting to civilian life. 21% express having a somewhat difficult time adjusting, and 6% express having a very difficult time reintegrating into civilian life. Whether they find their adjustment to be pretty smooth or extremely challenging, all service members who return home may deal with one or more of the following:

1. Moving past hypervigilance

After returning from deployment, it’s normal for service members to feel on “high alert” for several months or longer. During deployment, their brains had been conditioned to constantly monitor their environment for potential threats and be prepared to respond with immediate violence. This mental conditioning takes time to wind down once they get home, and it’s common for service members to become anxious around loud noises, feel the need to carry weapons, or view harmless people or objects as potential threats.

2. Relearning how to “relationship”

The stress of military life is not limited to the service member; their families also experience significant sacrifices and challenges. When a service member returns, the emotional hardening that they underwent to function at war can be difficult for their loved ones to deal with. Their lack of empathy and affection can make them appear to be cold and distant, contributing to the divorce rate being higher among military spouses. However, many couples are able to overcome this stumbling block. Often with the help of couples counseling, many spouses are able to improve communication and rekindle their marriage after the strain of deployment.

3. Figuring out the finances

The military lifestyle doesn’t make financial management very easy. Frequent moves, deployments, injuries, and lack of job opportunities can make financial stability feel impossible. When a vet is unable to find a stable job and support their family, it exacerbates the other stressors they are dealing with. Military service often ingrains a strong sense of purpose in mission completion and getting the job done, and the loss of that mission and being unable to secure basic needs for their families can feel emotionally devastating.

4. Managing legal issues

Vets are prone to getting tangled in a web of legal issues. Their lengthy separation from home can have consequences on the family, finances, and their connection to supportive resources. Evictions and foreclosures, child custody disputes, and problems in receiving their benefits are just a few common issues that vets may need legal assistance in overcoming.

5. Avoiding self-medication

Self-medication can be a tempting coping mechanism for those who lack healthier skills to work through difficult emotions. Unfortunately, this can be a common byproduct for service members who have been trained to bury their feelings. Many vets use alcohol to help them sleep, as returning to healthy sleeping patterns is difficult after months of sleeping on edge or staying awake for days at a time in active war zones.

6. Overcoming PTSD

It is common for people who have experienced trauma to have symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) such as flashbacks, insomnia, severe anxiety, loss of interest in pleasurable activities, guilt, or social isolation. Studies have shown that the longer the soldier is in a high stress combat environment, the higher the chances of developing PTSD symptoms. Fortunately, awareness of PTSD is growing and its exposure is making it less of a taboo subject for veterans to talk about and seek help for.

7. Living with Traumatic Brain Injuries

A traumatic brain injury (TBI) can have symptoms similar to PTSD and often goes misdiagnosed. There are estimates that tens of thousands of vets may have experienced mild to moderate TBI’s without even knowing it. Repeated exposure to IED blasts is the primary cause of TBIs. The pressure from the blasts causes whiplash contusions to the frontal brain, damaging cells and nerve fibers in the frontal lobe (increasing volatility), the cerebellum (impacting balance), and the temporal lobe (making them forget basic tasks or have trouble speaking). Because symptoms can appear similar to those of PTSD or substance abuse which require different treatment than TBIs, it’s important for vets to see qualified specialists who understand the diagnostic differences.

8. Finding positive connections

Whether it be with their spouse, friends, or counselors, many service members have trouble connecting with others as they’ve been conditioned to shut down emotions like compassion, love, and empathy. Veterans often feel like a fish out of water when they return to the civilian population, as they don’t feel understood or connected to those who haven’t served. It’s critical that service members find someone they feel safe confiding in to allow them to process their emotions and trauma in a healthy, healing way.  

How are we helping our vets?

While it seems that every generation has their war, society’s ability to respond to their needs has not been equal throughout history. Awareness and understanding of the mental health issues that veterans face has been increasing in recent years, and there is a growing movement to reduce the stigma and negative ramifications that soldiers face for seeking help.  

The Hope of “Retraining”

While a service member’s brain may have been trained toward emotional repression and hypervigilance, the brain is flexible and it is possible for it to be retrained toward healthier thoughts and behaviors, even after injury. With the support of a qualified and understanding professional, service members can gain a new attainable mission as civilians: to work through trauma, rebuild strong relationships, and achieve mental health.

Variations can help

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How to Cite This Blog Article:

Shinn, M.M. (2018). When a Soldier Comes Home: The Impact of Deployment on Mental Health.  

Psychologically Speaking. [Variations Psychology blog post].  Retrieved from https://www.variationspsychology.com/blogs/when-a-soldier-comes-home-the-impact-of-deployment-on-mental-health