The prevalence of depression in the military is higher than in the general population. This may stem from the fact that military life involves significant stressors like deployment, combat, and relocations.

The higher likelihood of depression does not end with discharge from the military, as it also affects veterans.

Additionally, the increased depression rate affects families of active-duty military. This may be due to the stressors associated with being separated from a spouse, such as loneliness and increased parenting demands.

This article investigates the prevalence of depression in the military and after discharge, as well as risk factors, symptoms, and sources of support. It also includes firsthand stories from Danny Mayberry, an Iraq and Afghanistan combat veteran, and Michael Allen, a Marine Corps veteran.

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Doctors define a major depressive episode as having five or more of the following symptoms within a 2-week period. They include:

  • sadness
  • loss of pleasure or interest in activities
  • sleeping too little or too much
  • weight loss or gain
  • tiredness
  • reduced concentration
  • repetitive or unintentional movements
  • slowing of mental or physical activities
  • feeling worthless or excessive guilt
  • thoughts of death or suicide

Danny’s story: Symptoms during service

“I first noticed depression symptoms when I was 27. I drank much more than I planned, worked longer hours, stopped doing things I really enjoyed, and spent way more time in isolation.”

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A 2021 meta-analysis reviewed research to determine the prevalence of depression among members of the armed forces. It found the following:

  • Depression affects 23% of active-duty military.
  • Suicidal ideation or suicide attempts occur in 11% of active-duty military. Suicidal ideation refers to thoughts of or preoccupation with ending one’s life.
  • Suicidal ideation or attempts happen in 18% of active-duty military who use drugs and 9% of those who consume alcohol.

To compare these statistics to the general population, 8.4% of adults in the United States had at least one major depressive episode in 2020.

Suicide prevention

If you know someone at immediate risk of self-harm, suicide, or hurting another person:

  • Ask the tough question: “Are you considering suicide?”
  • Listen to the person without judgment.
  • Call 911 or the local emergency number, or text TALK to 741741 to communicate with a trained crisis counselor.
  • Stay with the person until professional help arrives.
  • Try to remove any weapons, medications, or other potentially harmful objects.

If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, a prevention hotline can help. The 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline is available 24 hours a day at 988. During a crisis, people who are hard of hearing can use their preferred relay service or dial 711 then 988.

Find more links and local resources.

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The elevated risk of depression persists after a person’s military service ends. Veterans, particularly those who have served in combat, have experienced more trauma in their life than non-veterans.

Research shows the following:

  • Depression affects 20% of veterans.
  • Suicidal ideation or attempts occur in 11% of veterans.
  • In veterans who use drugs, the rates of suicidal ideation and attempts are 18% and 30%, respectively.
  • Suicidal ideation or attempts occur in 8% of veterans who consume alcohol.

In the military, mental health stigma derives from the misperception that a service member should be deficit-free to engage in combat. A person with depression may fear ridicule or worry that others will perceive them as weak.

Michael’s story: Stigma during service

“I went into a deep depression knowing that I was not in the company that I thought I would find myself. I had no support.

During the ’80s, therapy was not available for a Marine who had a dark side. They, too, assumed that all Marines felt the same as I did.

I tried [to get help] several times. I got the same answer: But you’ve always been that way. There’s nothing wrong with you. You’re a United States Marine. You can handle it.

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The stigma can also involve career concerns.

Underlying the stigma is an erroneous belief that mental health conditions are just “in a person’s head.” In reality, the mind and physical body are intricately interwoven.

Additionally, being in the military may also increase a person’s risk of depression. Research notes that the military environment has factors that may increase the likelihood of depression, including:

  • being separated from a support system of loved ones and friends
  • seeing themselves and others in danger
  • experiencing the intense stress of combat

Other risk factors that the military poses include:

  • physical fitness concerns
  • legal concerns from the uniformed code of justice
  • command leadership discord
  • rank and promotion complications
  • frequent relocations
  • deployments

Danny’s story: Stigma during service

“It was very difficult for me to talk to my peers about my mental health. Since I worked in the medical field, it was easy for me to recognize some problems and seek help in order to get ready for the next deployment.

I did not know of other service members that struggled with depression until I began getting help. I actually continued to keep a distance from veterans for about a decade because a result of me asking for help was being separated from the military.

Once I began treatment, it was easy to talk with friends and family about what I was going through. Being transparent is crucial to maintaining a healthy life.”

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Older research from 2011 explains that during deployment, military spouses have to deal with the fear of safety for the deployed spouse. They also temporarily have to take on the role of a single parent, which can lead to:

  • loneliness
  • financial concerns
  • stress
  • lack of sleep
  • increased parenting demands

Additionally, once the deployed spouse returns home, it causes drastic role shifts within the family. Consequently, the at-home spouse may need time to adjust to changes, such as a loss of independence.

The associated stress during and following deployment depletes the at-home spouse’s resources. This may result in the worsening of a mental health condition, such as depression.

Without treatment, stress can affect the spouse’s mental health and children’s well-being. It can also reduce the military member’s support system and have a negative effect on reintegration into the family. The study authors concluded that depression interventions for military families are necessary.

Danny’s story: Family life and recovery

“My mental health permeates every aspect of my life. I still have regular suicidal ideations, depressive episodes, outbursts of anger, and intrusive thoughts. This year my wife and I have embraced that taking care of my mental health requires me to help others.

I decided to get help before going on what was supposed to be my fourth combat deployment. But asking for help at that time meant that I was separated from my unit and placed in a rehabilitation facility for alcohol dependence and PTSD.

Overall, everything had to change, and I had to rely on people with way more experience to help guide me through a difficult life transition. Since asking for help, I have been able to complete a bachelor’s and master’s degree, celebrate 8 years of marriage, start a business, and buy a home in Hawaii. Most importantly, I’m equipped to combat my symptoms of depression when they arise.”

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The following are sources of support for service members and their families:

  • Military OneSource: The Department of Defense provides this free resource for the military and their families to help with an array of issues, including mental health concerns. It offers a 24/7 toll-free number of 1-(800) 342-9647.
  • Psychological Health Center of Excellence (PHCoE): PHCoE offers psychological health research consultations for the military and their families. It has a 24/7 toll-free number of 1-(866) 966-1020. Alternatively, it provides live chat and email contact options.
  • VA Mental Health: This is a branch of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs that connects veterans and their families to mental health services.

Michael’s story: Recovery

“I went to a therapist years ago and got absolutely nothing out of it. He asked questions — the same questions I had been asking myself. So, I decided rather than pay him, just keep asking myself questions.

The best advice I have is to not make decisions when you are down. Make a promise to yourself, and don’t make decisions when you are at your worst. Wait until you’re back up and make decisions.

Write them down if you have to just so you can remember them, and put your notes in a prominent place so that you can always see them. Do not make decisions when you are down!”

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Depression in the military affects active duty members and their families, along with veterans. The rate of depression is higher than the rate in the general population because of the stressors that military life poses.

Aside from the stress of combat and separation from families, some soldiers with depression also experience stigma surrounding their mental health. Any person with symptoms of depression should seek professional help. The 24/7 toll-free hotlines make it possible to speak with someone immediately.