Many people believe that depression is something that will go away just by toughing it out. Individuals who serve in the military, or those that have served, are especially subject to the instilled demands and expectations of readiness which perpetuate the idea that they must never allow their mental health to interfere with their assignments in life. Likewise, if treatment for depression is sought, service members mistakenly view it as a sign of weakness. The fact is that depression is a common condition that can interfere with daily life and normal functioning when untreated. Depression is much more than a mental struggle that can be ‘willed away.’ Depression often impedes the quality of life, and untreated depression can inhibit longevity.
Depression and Suicide Risk Factors in the Military
Recent statistics report an increase in diagnosed depression in military members and veterans from a baseline of 11.4% to a rate of 15% after deployment. Suicidal ideology is a serious symptom of depression, which should not be ignored. Suicide rates amongst active-duty personnel and war veterans substantially increased following the 9/11 conflicts, to an estimated total of 30,177. It is well-known that participants in active military duty have unique risk factors for developing depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and other mental health disorders. Deployment and exposure to combat increase the risk factor for PTSD and depression by as much as 2 or 3 times, compared to those not exposed.
The risk factors for depression in the military are intensified by several aspects including individual efforts to cover it up. Individuals previously diagnosed with a mental health condition, such as depression, are typically disqualified from recruiting. This often exacerbates the stigma that an active-duty service member is not fit to serve after a diagnosis of depression. While there are differences from case to case, mental health care and treatment are available and effective, and getting help is by no means an indicator that an individual is unable to effectively serve.
Recognizing the Symptoms of Depression
Depression is different for everyone. But when the symptoms are persistent, or if they last for more than two weeks, it is an indicator to seek mental health support.
Here are the most common signs of depression:
- Low mood, sadness, or hopelessness
- Excessive worry or fear
- Inability to concentrate, focus, or make decisions
- Anger, irritability, and feelings of frustration
- Anxiety, agitation, or restlessness
- Unexplained pain or body tension, such as headaches or back pain
- Sleep disturbances, either insomnia or sleeping too much
- Reduced or increased appetite, resulting in weight gain or loss
- Feelings of worthlessness or guilt, unable to shake past difficulties or experiences
- Suicide ideation or attempts to self-harm
Here are some additional symptoms of mental distress and some questions to ask yourself. Please familiarize yourself with these for your own well-being (and for the people that you love). Remember that the importance does not necessarily rest in the symptom itself, but in how it impacts you or your loved one’s life.
Depression Differences in the Sexes
Depression can affect the sexes differently. Men often bottle anger and stress up at work, for example, and may show more aggression at home. Men also (unknowingly or not) engage in tactics to avoid the symptoms of depression, such as spending more time in the office, focusing on sports, withdrawing socially, or spending more time alone in the basement or the ‘man cave.’ Boys are taught to tough it out and to be more resilient, compared to girls. This leads adult males to trust their learned behaviors – to ignore any signs of depression.
“Women with depression may come in crying; men may come in acting out in anger, “says Andres Angelino, M.D., Chair of Psychiatry at Howard County General Hospital, “We’ve taught boys that they don’t cry; so instead of crying, they get angry and threatening.”
The masking of depressive symptoms is common in the military culture, especially in men.
Service Members, Veterans, and Family Support
We are here to help. There is no shame or weakness in taking care of yourself. If you are a service member, a veteran, or a military family member needing support for depression or symptoms of mental distress in the Commonwealth, please contact your local Community Service Branch (CSB). If you are in the area designated as Region 5, also known as coastal, southeastern Virginia, and you need behavioral health support, including support for depression, please contact one of our Region 5 CSBs for immediate support. Our military and veterans services ensure that veterans, active-duty members, and military family members obtain behavioral health treatment services and support.
Immediate Crisis Support
Dial or text 988 for the national suicide crisis line. If you are in the Region 5 area of Virginia, dial the local 24/7 crisis line at (757) 656-7755 to get someone faster.