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Veterans Law

Veteran PTSD Statistics

December 8, 2020
Veteran PTSD Statistics

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) Explained

Statistics show that Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is quite common among the veteran community. PTSD is a mental health condition caused by experiencing a distressing, shocking, or otherwise traumatic event.  Many veterans experience PTSD stemming from events they witnessed or experienced during their military service.

PTSD can be diagnosed by a medical professional, whether it be a therapist, psychiatrist, or general practitioner.  It is important to note that the symptoms and severity of PTSD symptoms vary from person to person.  However, the most common symptoms include the following:

  • Re-experiencing the trauma through intrusive, distressing recollections of the event, flashbacks, and nightmares
  • Emotional numbness and avoidance of places, people, and activities that are reminders of the trauma
  • Increased arousal such as difficulty sleeping and concentrating, feeling jumpy, and being easily irritated and agitated

PTSD can either be short-term or chronic depending on the individual and the circumstances.  Regardless, the main treatments for people with PTSD are medications (e.g., antidepressants), psychotherapy (“talk therapy”), or both (see “Treatment for PTSD in Veterans” section below).

Veterans may be able to receive VA disability benefits for PTSD if they experienced a traumatic event during service and now have the above-mentioned symptoms as a result.

Prevalence of PTSD Among Veterans: Statistics

 According to VA, the number of veterans with PTSD varies by service era:

  • Operations Iraqi Freedom (OIF) and Enduring Freedom (OEF) – about 11-20 out of every 100 veterans (i.e., between 11-20%) who served in OIF or OEF have PTSD in a given year
  • Gulf War (Desert Storm) – about 12 out of every 100 Gulf War veterans (12%) have PTSD in a given year
  • Vietnam War – about 15 out of every 100 Vietnam veterans (15%) were diagnosed with PTSD at the time of the most recent study in the late 1980s, the National Vietnam Veterans Readjustment Study (NVVRS). It is estimated that about 30 out of every 100 (30%) of Vietnam veterans has had PTSD in their lifetime.

Importantly, the statistics may be underestimated as not every veteran receives treatment for their PTSD-related symptomology.

Military Sexual Trauma

Another cause of PTSD in the military can be military sexual trauma (MST).  VA defines MST as any sexual harassment or sexual assault that occurs while individuals are in the military (i.e., during peacetime, training, or war).  Statistics show that among veterans who use VA health care, approximately:

  • 23 out of 100 women (23%) reported sexual assault when in the military
  • 55 out of 100 women (55%) and 38 out of 100 men (38%) have experienced sexual harassment when in the military

Once again, these statistics may be lower than the actual number of men and women who have experienced MST at some point throughout their time in the military insofar as not everyone reports MST.  Furthermore, these statistics are based only on those veterans who are enrolled in VA health care.

Statistics on PTSD and Co-Occurring Mental Health Conditions

It is important to note that PTSD often occurs along with other mental health conditions in veterans.  For example, depression is the most common comorbidity of PTSD in veterans.  Specifically, research shows that major depressive disorder is nearly three to five times more likely to emerge in those with PTSD than those without PTSD.

Other common mental health comorbidities include anxiety and substance abuse or dependence.  Statistics show that approximately 74 percent of Vietnam veterans with PTSD had a co-occurring substance use disorder.  Importantly, studies suggest that veterans with comorbid PTSD and substance use disorders are more difficult and costly to treat than those with either disorder alone due to poorer social functioning, higher rates of suicide attempts, and more.

Risk Factors for PTSD in Veterans

Although all veterans are susceptible to PTSD, there are a number of factors that have been shown to increase the risk of PTSD within the veteran population, including the following: younger age at the time of trauma, racial minority status, lower socioeconomic status, lower military rank, lower education, higher number of deployments, longer deployments, prior psychological problems, and lack of social and community support.  However, more research is needed to fully understand these risk factors and how they affect PTSD prevalence among veterans.

Treatment for PTSD in Veterans

 There are many types of psychotherapies available for treating veterans with PTSD; however, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is considered to have the strongest evidence for reducing PTSD symptomology.  Additionally, it has been shown to be more effective than any other non-drug treatment approach.

CBT includes various types of interventions, including cognitive processing therapy (CPT) and prolonged exposure (PE) therapy.  Both of these interventions involve focusing on the impact of the veterans’ trauma and restructuring the way they respond to the memories of traumatic experiences.  However, recent research also shows that non-exposure-based interventions may be equally as effective as PE and CPT in the treatment of PTSD in veterans.  As such, there has been a movement towards decreasing the use of exposure-based techniques seeing as they often place veterans under a significant amount of stress and re-traumatization.

Importantly, some veterans do not respond well to non-drug treatment alone and may prefer medications or benefit from a combination of medication and psychotherapy.  In these cases, psychotropic medications are typically recommended as well.  However, VA/DoD Clinical Guideline for PTSD cautions against any use of benzodiazepines to manage PTSD symptomology because evidence suggests that they are ineffective and potentially harmful.  Specifically, benzodiazepines are very addictive, and withdrawal may involve seizures or even death.  As such, they should not be used for long-term treatment.

PTSD and Suicide Among Veterans Statistics

Sadly, statistics show that veterans now account for 20 percent of all suicides in the U.S., with individuals between ages 18-24 being four times more likely to commit suicide than nonveterans of the same ages.  It is currently estimated that between 20 and 22 veterans die from suicide each day.

According to recent research, the likelihood of suicide increases once a person leaves active military service, and that risk is further increased in veterans whose service time was less than four years.  Overall, PTSD may contribute to suicidal ideation, and possibly attempts, in veterans.

For immediate help, VA has implemented the veterans crisis line equipped with specially trained responders ready to help veterans 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.  The Veterans Crisis Line connects service members and veterans in crisis, as well as their family members and friends, with qualified, caring VA responders through a confidential toll-free hotline, online chat, or text messaging service.  Veterans can access the Crisis Line in any of the following ways:

  • Dial 1-800-273-8255 and Press 1 to talk to someone
  • Send a text message to 838255 to connect with a VA responder
  • Start a confidential online chat session at VeteransCrisisLine.net/Chat.
  • Take a self-check quiz at VeteransCrisisLine.net/Quiz to learn whether stress and depression might be affecting you.
  • Find a VA facility near you.
  • Visit MilitaryCrisisLine.net if you are an active duty service member, guardsman, or reservist.
Getting Veterans (VA) Disability for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)