Veteran Caregiver: Taking Care of Your Veteran and Yourself
If you have a family member or close friend who is a veteran, you are likely aware of the struggles that many veterans face after leaving the military and returning to civilian life. Some veterans adjust to civilian life easily, but many experience difficulties reintegrating into everyday life. Some may require a great deal of support or even need a family member or loved one take on a caregiving role in their lives.
Unfortunately, for most of our history, there has been a great deal of stigma associated with asking for help, for both activity military and veterans alike. This stigma may also extend to family members of veterans and keep them for reaching out for help as well. Thankfully, some of this stigma is going away, and there are more services than ever to assist veterans and loved ones who have taken on caregiver roles.
Some issues that veterans face may go beyond what a loved one can handle themselves, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or a substance abuse issue. In this case, there are services available through the VA and through community care providers. If you provide care for a veteran, this article will help you understand both the services available to you as well as services available for the veteran in your life.
Helping Your Veteran Adapt
Veterans may develop mental health disorders such as PTSD and alcohol abuse. In terms of substance abuse, veterans are more likely to use alcohol overall and to drink a large amount of alcohol, compared with nonveterans. In addition, veterans with combat exposure are more likely to use alcohol and engage in heavy drinking than noncombat-exposed veterans. 1
Mental health issues impact a substantial number of veterans. It has also been estimated that 11-20% of veterans who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan develop PTSD. The estimated rate of PTSD among Vietnam War veterans may be as high as 15%.2
Stigma is one of the biggest issues for veterans seeking treatment. When others view a person through the lens of stigma related to that person’s characteristics or behaviors, they treat that person differently than other people or even penalize them in some way.
Although it has improved in recent years due to a major education effort by the military, the stigma about getting treatment still exists. A 2011 survey of active-duty service members of all military branches indicated that about one-third of military members surveyed feared that seeking treatment could hurt their military career, and 20% of those who had sought treatment reported that it did negatively impact their careers.3 (P 21) Obviously, these types of fears keep many service members from seeking help.
As a family member or loved one of a vet, you may be unsure about how to help the veteran in your life. The VA recommends several steps in this process, including:4
- Learning as much as possible about PTSD.
- Attending medical appointments with your loved one so you know what is going on.
- Letting your veteran know you are there to listen.
- Planning family activities.
- Engaging in physical exercise together, such as walking.
- Keeping in contact with friends and family for support.
Veteran Addiction Treatment
Veterans Affairs offers several types of rehab, both at VA rehab centers and through community care providers. The VA offers screening and treatment for both mental health diagnoses and substance abuse disorders.5
However, a veteran may live too far away from a VA rehab center to make treatment convenient. Likewise, the nearest VA treatment center may be full and have a waiting list. In some cases, your local VA treatment center may not offer a specialized program that your doctor feels you need, whether for psychological or medical reasons.
In those cases where the VA cannot meet your needs for whatever reason, the VA has contracted with community care providers who can provide this care for you. While you must first receive approval from your local VA, you can frequently get approved to receive treatment from a community care provider.6
American Addiction Centers offers several programs for substance abuse and mental health treatment at locations nationwide. The services that vets can receive, depending on their individual needs, include:
- Group therapy and mutual support groups.
- Individual therapy.
- Family therapy.
- Anger management.
- Couples counseling.
Two American Addiction Centers’ facilities offer a specialized program for veterans called Salute to Recovery, which is designed to help veterans dealing with substance abuse and those who are dealing with both PTSD and substance abuse. One of the unique features of Salute to Recovery is that many of the staff members are veterans themselves and understand the struggles many veterans face after military service. This program is offered at Desert Hope in Las Vegas and at Recovery First in Hollywood, Florida.
VA Caregiver Support for Family Members
The VA offers a caregiver assistance program for those qualified. Mental health resources, a monthly stipend, and even a period of respite are benefits under the program. The VA also provides educational tools to help you learn how to care for a veteran, as well as a support line, which you can reach at 855-260-3274.
It can be stressful to care for a family member who is struggling with drug abuse and/or a mental health issue. It is important that you also take care of yourself during this time. You can engage in self-care by:7 (p 11)
- Setting boundaries that are realistic and taking breaks.
- Exercising, eating healthy food, and getting enough sleep.
- Reaching out and talking to friends and family for support.
- Talking to a counselor.
Veteran Health and the Impact on the Family
The returning veteran who is struggling with a mental health and/or a substance abuse disorder can impact their family in many ways. Some vets with PTSD are more inclined to engage in domestic violence and tend to divorce more often than those without PTSD. When you are the marital partner of a vet with PTSD, you may experience a variety of outcomes, including:8
- Less marital satisfaction.
- Lower overall happiness.
- Feeling like you are going to fall apart and break down.
Couples counseling can help with these issues and help couples adjust.
Children are also affected in numerous ways by a parent’s PTSD or substance abuse disorder. With PTSD, a parent may disconnect and try to avoid activities or experiences that can remind them of a traumatic event. A parent with PTSD may avoid things like family outings, which can lead a child to feel that their parent is emotionally absent and perhaps doesn’t even care about them.
In addition, a child may experience fear and confusion if their parent displays strong emotions when having a flashback or reliving a traumatic event. Children whose parents have PTSD often experience emotional and behavioral problems.9
A parent with substance abuse may be unable to care for a child and neglect their basic needs, such as providing adequate food or a clean and safe home. Parents who are abusing substances will sometimes leave drugs or alcohol where children can easily access them and overdose.
Parents who use drugs and alcohol are often unable to provide routine schedules and consistent discipline to their children. In addition, the emotional toll of seeing a parent using drugs and alcohol can be upsetting to children and lead to emotional issues. Family therapy can be a valuable tool to help children understand what is going on with a parent and help them learn to cope.10 (paragraphs 1,2,3)
Remember, no matter how great the needs of your loved one, yourself, and your family, the VA offers treatment. Numerous VA rehab programs and community care providers can help you and your family make the journey through this challenging time.
- Teeters, J. B., Lancaster, C. L., Brown, D. G., & Back, S. E. (2017). Substance use disorders in military veterans: prevalence and treatment challenges.Substance Abuse and Rehabilitation,8, 69–77.
- U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs. (2018). How common is PTSD in veterans?
- RAND Corporation. (2014). Mental health stigma in the military.
- U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs. (2020). Helping a family member who has PTSD.
- U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs. (2019). Treatment for substance use problems.
- U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs. (2019). Community care
- U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs. (2019). Understanding PTSD: A guide for family and friends.
- U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs. (2020). Partners of veterans with PTSD.
- U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs. (2020). When a child’s parent has PTSD.
- Smith, V. C., & Wilson, C. R. (2016). Committee on substance use and prevention. Families affected by parental substance use.Pediatrics, 138(2).