By Dr. Carla Schnitzlein
Medical Director
Natchaug Hospital

Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is the most widely known primary mental health disorder for military service members and veterans. But military personnel – active duty and veterans — can suffer from any psychiatric illness.

Many service members, especially those with multiple deployments, deal with depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and substance use. As a former military psychiatrist, I often saw what we in the mental health field call moral injury complicating these diagnoses.

Sometimes service members are placed in situations that call for hard choices. Sometimes these scenarios and their resolutions do not align with the values they are taught growing up. These decisions leave them with a moral quandary: Am I still a good person? Will my family still love me if they knew what I did? There is a lot of guilt and shame associated with moral injury, and it can make cases of PTSD and depression in soldiers harder to treat.

Early treatment is essential for active personnel to not only help them mentally but also to keep their careers on track. One study found that nearly 30 percent of soldiers meet the criteria for PTSD or major depressive disorder, yet only 50 percent seek treatment because of the stigma associated with it. Soldiers are taught they must be ready to fight at all times and that there is no room for weakness. But seeking treatment early can prevent career-ending incidents, such as a DUI or family violence.

Although there is no concrete data available yet, the COVID-19 pandemic is undoubtedly affecting active service members’ mental health. One reason is the changes in deployment, necessitating a quarantine both before and after travel overseas. The quarantine period creates increasing isolation during a period when they need extra support. Also, many veterans face isolation already, and having to further distance from their trusted population of friends and family to maintain physical health can take a toll on mental health.

At Natchaug Hospital, several treatment options are available to active duty personnel and veterans. Inpatient behavioral health services are available for people in acute crises. Natchaug also offers partial hospitalization (PHP) and intensive outpatient (IOP) services, and several clinicians are trained in trauma-focused therapies. During screenings at these programs, clinicians can identify active personnel and veterans, which helps determine the type of care and treatment they may receive.

Warning signs and symptoms to look out for include:

  • Behavioral changes such as an outgoing individual becoming more isolated or a shy individual lashing out at peers and colleagues.
  • Giving away possessions such as cherished medals or important documents.
  • Sleep changes that could be due to nightmares or insomnia.
  • Increased  alcohol use.