Why US veterans deal with higher rates of illness—and what you can do to help

By Jules Murtha | Fact-checked by Jessica Wrubel
Published October 3, 2022

Key Takeaways

  • Research shows that US veterans’ mental health challenges have increased at twice the rate of those of civilians in the past decade. Veterans are also more likely to deal with hearing impairments and chronic pain.

  • According to surveys, male veterans who are Black, Hispanic, or of mixed race have a higher likelihood of having fair to poor health self-ratings than White veterans.

  • To address veterans’ unique needs, clinicians can educate themselves, build strong relationships with veteran patients, and spread awareness of veterans’ benefits.

Veterans of the US Armed Forces have historically lacked proper healthcare. Since some veterans don’t qualify for care, private clinicians must help bridge this gap.

But some may not offer coverage that meets veterans’ unique needs, creating health disparities. Doctors can help by educating themselves and catering care to each patient’s needs.

Veterans experience higher rates of illness

There’s no shortage of evidence that shows veterans experience heightened rates of physical and mental illness compared with those who don’t serve.

According to a 2022 report published by America’s Health Rankings, mental health challenges among veterans have increased at twice the rate of civilians in the past 10 years.[] This includes rates of suicidal thoughts and mental illnesses, like depression.

From 2011-2012 and 2019-2020, veterans experienced a 51% increase in suicidal thoughts, whereas civilians saw a 32% increase. Similarly, depression among veterans spiked up to 27%, while there was a 16% increase in civilians.

Health disparities faced by veterans don’t end at mental health challenges, however.

The same report stated that those who served are 3.8 times more likely to walk away with severe hearing impairments than those who do not. In addition, the rate at which male veterans reported severe hearing impairment (15%) was three times higher than the rate at which female veterans did (3%).

Veterans between the ages of 26–34 dealt with 2.6 times the rate of chronic pain that their civilian counterparts did. Chronic pain can interfere with one’s ability to work, engage in daily tasks, and manage their well-being.

A closer look at the research reveals further health disparities within the veteran population.

Role of race, ethnicity in health disparities

Among those who serve, individuals of racialized or ethnic identities tend to experience higher rates of illness all around.

A 2021 article published by the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health stated that veterans who are Black, Hispanic, or mixed race are more likely to report poorer self-rated health than White veterans.[]

For example, Black and Hispanic veterans have reported higher rates of PTSD compared with their White counterparts. This may be linked to differences in combat exposure, which, in men, are known to lead to PTSD, arthritis, asthma, heart and lung disease, and stroke, among other ailments.

Further research is needed to gain a clearer understanding of the ways race and ethnicity may affect health disparities among those who serve, especially in terms of behavior and lifestyle factors.

In the meantime, clinicians can begin working on ways to address the unique needs of veterans.

Cater approach to needs

Although US veterans face a number of health disparities, clinicians, educators, researchers, and health systems can work together to diminish them by providing better care.

According to an article published by Northwell Health, physicians can support veterans through the following actions:[]

  • Educate yourself. Knowing how to approach a patient who is a veteran—such as asking specific questions—can help you better understand their needs. When you do, you can treat them or direct them to another provider. This is particularly important for clinicians in emergency departments and ambulatory services since they are usually the first to make contact with patients.

  • Provide valuable care. Ask your patient how long they served, what branch they were in, where they were stationed, and other questions that can provide clarity about their circumstances. The better you know your patient, the higher-quality care you can provide.

  • Individualize your approach. Check in with patients about their boundaries. Not every veteran will feel comfortable recalling the details of their experience with you, according to Northwell Health. In such cases, try to connect with their families to better understand what your patient may be going through.

  • Keep the conversation going. Use your voice to spread awareness. Let community leaders and veterans groups in on relevant programs and services. Your patients may also benefit from healthcare partnerships with military leaders.

What this means for you

US veterans experience higher rates of mental and physical health issues than civilians, yet may not report it. Veterans who are Black, Hispanic, or mixed race tend to have higher rates of PTSD and other illnesses as a result of increased combat exposure. Physicians can address veterans’ health issues head-on by getting to know and appropriately serve each individual patient, and spreading awareness of veterans’ programs.

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