How to be There for a Veteran in Your Life

Amanda Horn & Maribeth Savoie (Active Minds Staff)
Amanda Horn & Maribeth Savoie (Active Minds Staff)

As partners to Veterans, we understand the unique role that we all can play in being there to support Veterans’ mental health journeys. Our partners experienced places, conditions, and hardships that we cannot imagine. Their bravery and honor in serving their country is something that we feel immense pride in – but also have seen first hand the toll that their years of service to our country have taken on their mental health.

Veterans, in particular, are more at risk for mental health issues and suicidal thoughts due to a very specific lost sense of teamwork and purpose once their military career has concluded. They also may have experienced various traumatic events during their military career that they have continued to carry with them even after leaving the service and are also likely to have been accustomed to operating in an ongoing high-stress environment. All of these factors can heavily influence mental health.

A culture of maintaining mental toughness and team comradery contributes to Veterans not always seeking the help they need because they do not want to lose their job, rank, or future opportunities. They want to be seen by their team and superiors as operational and available to support the mission and they may believe revealing mental health struggles will likely temporarily change the trajectory of their career. This culture of mental toughness often stays with Veterans even after they are out of the military.

While every Veteran and their experiences are different, below are some tips that we have found useful when helping to support the Veterans in our lives:

  • Validate their experiences, even if you do not understand what they are feeling or what they have experienced. Know that you may never fully understand and that’s OK.
  • Listen with a non-judgmental attitude and do not pressure them to open up if they are not ready. Remember that there is no “correct” timeline for care. 
  • Establish trust and safety. Understand that Veterans may especially take longer to open up about what they may be experiencing and they often fear revealing their identity when seeking help, therefore, building trust and ensuring their safety is vital.
  • Encourage healthy self-care habits such as maintaining a routine, establishing good sleep hygiene, and getting consistent exercise.
  • Remind them that talking about mental health is a strength and not a weakness. 
  • Understand the need for space, especially right after getting out of the military. A Veteran who has recently gotten out of the military will likely need time and space to reacquaint oneself with civilian culture and day-to-day life.  It’s OK and normal for the Veteran in your life to seem different or distant after getting out of the military – or sometimes years after.  Know that any withdrawn behavior is not your fault.
  • Be there as a source of distraction and comfort. Sometimes the best thing we can do to support our loved ones is to just be there. Spend time going on a walk, watching a light-hearted movie, or talk about something positive in your lives.
  • Learn the signs of suicide among Veterans. Research has also shown that military personnel who attempt suicide often speak negatively about themselves and express a lack of hope. These statements can be described as the “coded language of suicide.” If you hear someone expressing hopelessness and negative self-talk, it’s time to act. Invite them to tell the story of how they got to this point and actively listen – they are trusting you with their personal thoughts.
  • Know how to refer them to specialized mental health resources for Veterans: