What can we do to help Veterans’ mental health? Hire them.

By David Maron, Jason Field & Sally Spencer-Thomas

Veterans Are Good For Work

Employers need to re-evaluate their relationship with the military and the profound disconnect that exists between the lip-service of “Thank you for your Service” and the actual tangible, material benefits we give to our Armed Forces and Veterans. The reception and perception Veterans often receive by the civilian population is in need of a total overhaul. 

A Veteran’s Perspective:

The Frustrations of Being Valued by Civilian Workforce

Hearing gratitude for one’s service does make an impact and has been special to me personally, but I would have much more preferred the chance to show what I could do with my skills in the workplace. I remember when I first separated, I spent most of my days job searching and tailoring my resumes to fit each job description precisely. I had received a few calls back but nothing that led to an interview or job offer. After about three to four months of the same routine, I found myself questioning our decision to separate from the military. My experience helped me land a job, but I found it frustrating that my training in the Air Force was considered null at my new place of employment. Veterans with just four or five years of service are almost guaranteed to have some sort of management/supervisory role when they stay in the military, so starting out at entry level all over again in a civilian job is also somewhat difficult. 

Some employers do not want to hire Veterans for fear they might have PTSD or performance limiting conditions. This remarkable stigma exists and is actually a form of discrimination. The prejudice persists despite the fact that Service Members are expertly trained, and capable of remarkable problem-solving, teamwork and leadership.

Part of the difficulty Veterans face is that the civilian work culture is often far different than the one in which they thrived, and often the level of discipline and performance is below their expectations. Whether it’s the Marines, Navy, Army, Air Force or the Coast Guard, veterans count themselves as being part of something bigger than themselves. Assimilating to a new standard becomes all the more difficult when transitioning into a new field. 

One Veteran shared, “My co-worker showed up 20 minutes late with no consequence. If we were in the Service we would have beat his ass.” Veterans are accustomed to being pushed to excellence, to the boundaries of their abilities to serve an important calling. In the right motivating environment, Veterans will bring this level of performance to the workplace. From the initial training and throughout their career, our service members are repeatedly tested to:

  • Work together as a team to complete a mission

  • Implement efficient procedures

  • Quickly overcome obstacles

  • Have one another’s back 

These skills and many more and the mindset of service for the greater good can benefit an employer in countless ways.

Transitioning from One Battlefield to Another

When our warriors transition out of military life, those that deployed are sometimes transitioning from one battlefield to another – that being the battlefield of the mind. For those who return with images and experiences of war, their mind may ruminate on these experiences as they try to process what they experienced. Post-traumatic stress is an understandable reaction to these extreme conditions, though civilians may not have knowledge or awareness of symptoms, and may unfortunately exercise bias against the veteran unknowingly. 

For others the battlefield of the mind comes from feeling isolated and misunderstood at home. One minute they are spending 24-7 in a tightly knit unit, the next minute they are surrounded by family and friends who now feel like strangers. Many don’t feel comfortable talking about their military experiences with civilians for fear of being judged.

While Veterans were well trained for one battlefield, the Military does not adequately train them to battle the demons of depression, anxiety, addiction and trauma. From a mental health perspective, transition inoculation is critical to thwarting the potential negative outcomes of this life change. 

We provide the greatest military training to our armed services, they are the undisputed elite military fighting force in the world. But what kind of training do we provide for re-entry into to civilian life? The preparation and training they receive is in no way comparable to the pre-deployment preparation, especially in terms of mental health. .

A Veteran’s Perspective: Honoring the Warrior in Transition

The loss of identity is a big deal in transition, along with camaraderie and cohesion. We think about “Who I was, who I am now, who I am going to be?” We have all these warriors coming back, and we need to find ways to honor them because they are always going to be warriors.

The Transition Assistance Program does tremendously important work, and provides critical resources and access to post-service opportunities. However, many Veterans have described the process as a one-size-fits-all death-by-Powerpoint experience. They liken the process of transitioning out of service as something akin to being released from prison. 

We can do better.

One Veteran shared that when he received his benefits manual, it was hundreds of pages thick. He became so frustrated in trying to read through it that he literally burned it.

A Veteran’s Perspective: Help Us Translate Our Warrior Skills to the Workforce

What would be most helpful would be if organizations on the outside could assist veterans with translating the job skills and experience learned in the service to a language more consistent with that of the civilian workforce.  One positive development is Google’s new “Jobs for Veterans” search capability where services members are able to enter their military job codes to identify civilian positions that matched their skills and abilities. This is a step in the right direction.

There are many pathways Veterans can lead post-service, let’s create the means and conditions where their futures follow the pathway very best for them. 

Often what is most helpful to Veterans in transition is a peer who’s been there. Peers who’ve transitioned successfully in to new careers can help others behind them find their path. The on-going connection of these peers can offer troubleshooting and moral support when the job prospects are not forthcoming. Veterans can guide one another to employers who are Veteran friendly to help make sure the best and brightest job candidates are well taken care of.

A Veteran’s Perspective: Employee Support Group for Veterans

It would be so helpful to offer an employee veterans support group. Veterans isolate themselves because they feel others they work with do not understand their experience. Allowing veterans to meet at work will provide a safe environment for them to share current struggles in adapting as well as frustrations with communicating with their fellow civilian coworkers. Imagine being a new employee coming straight out of the military and being able to connect with other Veterans at the workplace that have shared similar experiences in serving as well as the difficulties of transitioning into a new civilian job. 

Preparing Employers for What to Expect

When Veterans return home, some reintegrate quickly putting their training and discipline towards becoming successful entrepreneurs or seamlessly transitioning to a parallel career path. Others need more help with converting their unique strengths into job opportunities best suited for them. Often employers need coaching on what a Veteran employee can do.

Here’s a brief narrative:

A good friend of mine, Charlie Shelby, a retired Army Captain,  shared his experience of trying to find post-service employment with a well-known technology company:

Talent Rep: “So, Mr. Selby, what did you do while in the military?”

Charlie: “I worked in artillery”

Talent Rep: “What does one do when they work in artillery?”

Charlie: “Well, you blow stuff up”

Talent Rep: “Well we here at [well-known technology company] don’t blow things up. Thank you for your service. Have a nice day”.

Charlie did not get the job. 

Sadly, this experience is not uncommon. A colleague from a job sourcing company shared that “recruiters see a Veteran’s resume and say ‘Oh, you have experience using a firearm, your job opportunities are a security guard or a police officer.’” 

This limited thinking needs to be turned on its head.

How are we going to sustain enrollment in the armed forces, if returning Veterans are not treated properly? How are they going to justify encouraging their children to join if they themselves are not receiving the benefits, entitlements, and compassion they rightly deserve?

We grow accustomed and take for granted the benefits their continued sacrifice provides. All of us move through our day-to-day lives with relative ease and safety due to the past and ongoing efforts of armed service members. They protect our freedoms by facing threats to our safety abroad, and yet, they face tremendous threats to their safety at home. 

Work is Good for Veterans

Meaningful work gives Veterans a new mission to focus on. While the exact purpose may shift from protecting our country to something new, the discipline and teamwork needed to reach audacious goals is familiar. Veterans’ sense of duty to a larger cause can help them live through the challenges they may experience like Post-Traumatic Stress or other mental health conditions. 

Veterans need to be needed.

The structure of needing to get moving each day can also help Veterans’ well-being. A routine in the day of exercising brain and body helps ward off emotional and physical pain. This ebb and flow of work and rest is the rhythm that humans are meant to exist within. Too much idleness is not good for the soul. When work challenges Veterans in a good way, they experience “eustress” — the positive side of the stress continuum that helps us continue to grow and learn.

Finally, working helps Veterans establish a sense of community and can offer social support. Belonging is central to mental resilience. When Veterans find workmates that help them evolve into their best selves, they thrive. A sense of camaraderie is formed that transcends the immediate task at hand. Building a new part of an identity post military service that extends the self into new self-descriptors beyond “former Military” is a critical step in transition success. Together this enhanced self-concept combined with new, supportive tribe increases self-esteem and builds a safety net around Veterans, so when times get tough, they have something to keep them standing strong.

What to Do if You are Worried about a Veteran Employee

Treat them like any other employee. Don’t assume that because they served in the military they have PTSD, as many are not deployed and many do not see combat. Do assume that they come with a high level of resilience and self-reliance, so they may not readily disclose if they are experiencing hardship. You may need to ask, reassure, refer and follow up.

  1. Ask: All employees should have regular mental health check-ups. Workplaces can participate in national screening days for depression, anxiety and alcohol abuse. If a supervisor or other employee is concerned they should ask directly, “Hey, you don’t seem like yourself lately. Are you okay?”

  2. Reassure: Employers can create a culture of caring for all employees by reassuring them that “they have their back” if they ever are facing a mental health challenge.

  3. Refer: Employers seeking to support Veterans should be aware of both Veteran and non-Veteran mental health services including:

  • Veteran Crisis Line https://www.veteranscrisisline.net/ — 24-7 crisis counseling for Military, Veterans and families.

  • Make the Connection http://maketheconnection.net/ Make the Connection, is a free resource with Veterans, military families, clinicians who can connect Veterans with care for fulfilling, healthy lives. Department of Veterans Affairs' mental health campaign.

  • Real Warriors The Real Warriors Campaign is a multimedia public education campaign designed to promote service members engagement with psychological health treatment. The campaign website offers access to 24/7 live chat, message boards and more.

  • Vets4Warriors 855-838-8255 is a 24/7 confidential peer support network for veteran and military communities 

  • Treatment Works for Vets TreatmentWorksForVets.org is a new website that offers evidence-based treatment for sleep and mood issues Veterans often face.

  • Give an Hour http://www.giveanhour.org/ Give an Hour is dedicated to meeting the mental health needs of military personnel, veterans, their families, and communities affected by the post-9/11 conflicts through counseling and public education.

Non-Veteran mental health resources (like most Employee Assistance Programs) are not usually familiar with military-specific stressors like moral injury, traumatic brain injury, military sexual trauma and parenting/relationships challenges during deployment. Employers might brief non-Veteran specific providers with information on these challenges to help insure Veterans’ experiences are better understood.

Follow up: Once support has been offered, following up is advised. Sometimes referrals don’t work out. Sometimes it’s just nice to know that someone cares. You can say, “I am not sure what is happening for you right now, I just wanted to let you know that I hope I can be that person you feel like you can talk to when things get overwhelming. I know you’d do the same for me.”

While it can be challenging to look issues of distress and despair among our Veterans head-on, it is thrilling to consider a future world where our society recognizes and demonstrates our appreciation for their service in a meaningful and material way. A job and career tailored for the Veteran and their individual skills and abilities allows them every chance for living a thriving successful post military life. 

About the Authors

David Maron

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David Maron, M. A., M.H.S. is a biostatistician, public health researcher and consultant with nearly a decade of experience working with electronic medical record system data and leading national data sharing initiatives to promote mental health in Veteran populations, particularly in the areas of innovation and suicide prevention. He created the first ever synthetic Veteran suicide dataset and released it to the public on Data.gov. David works towards modernizing government at the intersection of data, technology and policy with a focus on leveraging mental health partnerships among government, academic, and industry organizations to improve services to Veterans and catalyze solutions for mental health problems facing Veterans and society broadly. David received his Master's in General Psychology from Catholic University of America and his Master's of Health Science from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. 

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Jason Field

Jason Field is a U.S. Air Force veteran of seven years. Field is currently pursuing his licensure in professional counseling and has focused his research on marriage couples and families.

Sally Spencer-Thomas

Sally Spencer-Thomas is a clinical psychologist, inspirational international speaker and an impact entrepreneur. Dr. Spencer-Thomas was moved to work in suicide prevention after her younger brother, a Denver entrepreneur, died of suicide after a difficult battle with bipolar condition. Known nationally and internationally as an innovator in social change, Spencer-Thomas has helped start up multiple large-scale, gap filling efforts in mental health including the award-winning campaign Man Therapy and the nation’s first initiative for suicide prevention in the workplace. In 2016 she was an invited speaker at the White House where she presented on men’s mental health. In her recent TEDx Talk she shares her goal to elevate the conversation and make suicide prevention a health and safety priority in our schools, workplaces and communities. Connect with Sally at www.SallySpencerThomas.com and on Facebook (@DrSallySpeaks), Twitter (@sspencerthomas) and LinkedIn.

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