Veterans Connected by Experiences With Mental Health Care
May 04, 2023 | 3-minute read
Veterans often feel connected to other Veterans because — no matter when, where or how they served — they share an understanding of the unique lifestyle and culture of the military. For this year’s observance of Mental Health Month in May, Make the Connection is focusing on the thread of shared experience that runs through Veterans who received professional mental health support. While this month’s featured Veterans don’t speak for everybody, the life improvements they talk about are shared by many.
Mike, a 23-year Veteran of the Marine Corps, says professional mental health support brought him real relief — whereas years of drinking too much, hiding his feelings and ignoring his thoughts of suicide did not. “As you start talking it out and somebody’s there to show you, ‘Look, here’s what’s happening,’ it starts to make sense,” Mike explains.
Getting therapy and interacting with other Veterans at VA did a lot for Mike. He began to feel like he was part of a community, rather than living in emotional isolation. In fact, Mike found such value in therapy that he earned a master’s degree in social work so he could help people — mostly Veterans and first responders — out of the same darkness that almost consumed him.
Mike likens therapy to boot camp because it’s not always easy to work through deep-seated issues. “But you remember how you felt when you graduated? Yeah, no better feeling. That’s the way I feel just about every day,” he says.
Mike’s wife, Valerie, says one of the biggest changes she has noticed in Mike since treatment is his dedication to helping others. She knows because she’s one of the people he helped. Valerie spent decades feeling angry, resentful and lonely and blaming herself for experiencing military sexual trauma while serving in the Army. Mike noticed behaviors like the hypervigilance that drove Valerie to look out the windows in the middle of the night. He took the opportunity to talk with Valerie about what she felt and why. Mike’s attention to Valerie’s feelings made her feel safe opening up, and his encouragement, support and love helped her feel more comfortable about getting therapy.
At her first appointment with a counselor, Valerie realized it would be possible to work through her emotional scars. “For the first time in my life, I recognized that I was not to blame — that there was hope,” she says. Therapy “made all the difference in the world” for Valerie, who learned how to understand and manage her feelings.
Chris, who served as a cannoneer in the Marine Corps, describes a feeling of relief similar to Mike’s. Like many Veterans, he feels lighter since working through posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), as if a physical weight has been lifted from his shoulders. Therapy helped Chris gain control over things that set off his PTSD symptoms, like a song that he recalls hearing right before his boots hit the sand in the Middle East. “It used to be real hard for me to listen to that,” Chris says, but now, “it’s just a song.’”
Healing is hard work, Chris says, but with prolonged exposure therapy and practice, he learned
to work through his challenges and to be kind to himself — often through music. “Music sets the tone for my mood. If I’m stressed, time to pick up the guitar,” Chris adds. “I’m a happier person, a more successful person.”
It’s not always easy for Veterans to talk about their experiences, especially to those closest to them. But with mental health support, many learn that relief comes once they let themselves be vulnerable and open. During Mental Health Month, learn about the treatments that can help Veterans process their pasts and map out their futures.