Supporting the Mental Health Needs of Service Members Returning from Afghanistan

In the early morning of August 30th, the last plane carrying U.S forces left Kabul International Airport in Afghanistan, bringing an official end to America’s longest war. 

For 20 years, American troops fought in the desert of Afghanistan, first searching for 9/11 mastermind Osama Bin Laden, then working to consolidate democratic power so terror organizations like the Taliban, Al-Qaeda, and ISIS could not retake control. 

According to the Costs of War Project, approximately 6,337 members of the US security forces (including Department of Defense civilians) have died in this war. However, the human cost of this war is much higher, with some estimates putting the total death toll over 242,000.  

Between the announcement of the war ending and the final days of the evacuation, more than 6,000 American soldiers left Afghanistan. Though it’s high, that number only represents a small fraction of the total troops who saw action in this war.

Helping Veterans Process the News from Afghanistan

The weeks following President Biden’s announcement that he planned to end the war was an intense and traumatic time for many US military veterans. Many were re-triggered by the continual news coverage of the war. Some were angry that their hard work and sacrifice had led to so little reward, as Afghan Security Forces and the Afghani government crumbled, creating a power vacuum that was immediately exploited by the Taliban.  

This collective trauma, sadness, and frustration has the potential to lead to an even greater mental health burden on our troops if they don’t receive the care they need.

While many veterans are cared for by dedicated VA therapists, many are happy to seek help through other avenues. If you have veterans in your care, this is an excellent opportunity to inform yourself of ways that you can assist them, whether they are just returning from Afghanistan or processing the way their service is currently impacting their mental and behavioral health. 

Common Behavioral Health Issues Faced by Afghanistan Veterans

Many mental and behavioral health issues have been identified as particularly pervasive within the veteran community, especially among those who were deployed to Afghanistan.

Combat Exposure. Exposure to combat has several lasting effects that can plague veterans for years or even decades after their service. Being alert and in a state of continual readiness is prized in war, but can be difficult to shake as the soldier returns to civilian life. 

Many veterans display troubling behavior after their return home, such as being aggressive, jumpy, or easily startled. Some veterans have trouble sleeping and may feel sad, abandoned, or hopeless. 

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. It’s not uncommon for these feelings of edginess and anxiety to lead to a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It’s estimated that approximately 15.7% of veterans that fought in either Afghanistan or Iraq have been diagnosed with PTSD. In every branch of the military, soldiers who have been deployed are more likely to be diagnosed with PTSD when compared to their non-deployed military peers.

Depression. Another mental health condition that’s common among Afghanistan veterans is depression. It’s often diagnosed concurrently with PTSD and has been found to be most severe in the 12 months following a return home from combat.   

Substance Use Disorder. Often, feelings of depression, stress, and anxiety lead veterans to self-medicate with alcohol and other substances. Between 37-50% of Afghanistan and Iraq war vets have been diagnosed with a mental or behavioral health disorder, and associated substance use disorders (SUDs) are common.

How Clinicians Can Help Care for Veterans’ Mental Health Needs

There are many ways that clinicians can engage with veterans in their care and meet their ongoing needs following the end of the war in Afghanistan. Here is some guidance on helping the veterans in your care process this monumental event.  

Use Your Behavioral Health EHR to Understand Their Background. One of the benefits of using a behavioral health EHR in your clinic is having a wealth of client information at your fingertips. Before each appointment, make sure you familiarize yourself with the details of each veteran’s service and whatever else they’ve shared with you, so you can be on the same page without them having to reiterate painful past experiences.

Conduct the Appropriate Screenings. Even a veteran who has their substance use or mental health disorder under control may find it difficult to cope following the onslaught of news on Afghanistan. It’s beneficial to conduct regular screenings, regardless of whether that’s for SUD, depression, or PTSD. This can help you reach an accurate diagnosis, opening the door for them to receive the best care possible for their post-deployment mental health needs.    

Refer to Specialized Care if Necessary. While most clinicians are comfortable treating a variety of mental and behavioral health issues within their practice, some disorders require a combination of therapies and treatments that cannot be provided under the same roof. 

If your client requires specialized therapy like exposure therapy or desensitization and reprocessing, it may be best to refer the patient to a local VA medical center or another specialized therapist.

While the end of a war can bring on a myriad of emotions for veterans, clinicians have the unique ability to help. This care can not only help the veteran but also their family and friends as they return to civilian life.

Other Resources

Serving the behavioral health needs of the military and veteran populations can be challenging because their experiences that led to their need for care is quite different from the civilian population. Fortunately, support is available from a variety of organizations around the country that offer specialized services. You can find additional resources here:

All Secure Foundation

Warrior Canine Connection

Grace After Fire

Military Crisis Line 

National Center for PTSD

Military OneSource

Vets4Warriors

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