Mentally ill veterans left homeless

For quite some time, the literature surrounding military veterans and mental health has focused largely on the effects of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and how we can support our troops as they return from difficult missions overseas.

Obviously, this is a worthy goal and certainly an area of mental health we need to continue to give attention. Somewhat surprising however, are the results of a Canadian study published earlier this year out of the University of Western Ontario.

In this study, homeless veterans in London and Toronto Ontario were interviewed about their experiences. Among the 32 who participated in this study, most were middle aged men with an average age of 52 who did not end up on the street until many years after their military service.

Contrary to what we often assume, none of these veterans had served overseas. Researchers were surprised to learn that PTSD was not the primary mental illness represented in their subjects. The story these men told usually involved the start of a drinking problem while in the military that worsened over the years eventually costing them their jobs and relationships.

Typically these men had finished their military service for roughly 20 years and did not end up on the streets until they had been out for about 10 years.

Many reported they were not offered help from Veterans Affairs – and also that they did not seek help for their mental illness or addictions.

A common response in the survey involved the need for better transitional services to assist veterans with housing and addiction after leaving the military.

Although researchers praised Veterans Affairs for the current services they offer for high risk groups serving overseas, they feel this Canadian study offers some insight into other areas that should be targeted in order to help ensure the ongoing health of veterans.

Since the problem in Canada appears to be somewhat different from what we have seen in other (mostly American) literature, we need to be sure to adopt some practices that will deal with the situation here.

Routine assessment for alcoholism and other mental health issues could go a long way toward helping many remain successful once back in civilian life and hopefully prevent a decline into homelessness.

For those who are already struggling, strategies are needed to help these individuals get off the street and recover so they can return to functioning in society.

As always, ongoing education and working to eliminate stigma associated with mental illness and addiction would help to remove the barriers that often prevent people from seeking help when they have a problem. Mental illness and addiction are not problems for weak people - and this message needs to be delivered within the military framework and society as a whole.


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