Mental Health Matters in the Military

Mental health specialist speaks with a service member in her office.

Just as physical fitness is a central part of military life, good mental health is as important for your well-being, and military and family readiness. Mental health challenges and issues shouldn’t be ignored or hidden. There are lots of resources available to help anyone who is struggling with mental health challenges to feel better.

Recognizing signs and addressing challenges early

Start by learning to recognize signs in yourself or in someone close to you. Adults and teens who are suffering from a mental health disorder may display any number of the following signs:

  • Prolonged sadness or irritability
  • Feelings of extreme highs and lows
  • Excessive fears, worries and anxieties
  • Social withdrawal
  •  Dramatic changes in eating or sleeping habits
  • Strong feelings of anger
  • Delusions or hallucinations
  • Growing inability to cope with daily problems and activities
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Denial of obvious problems
  • Numerous unexplained physical ailments
  • Excessive substance use

Help for you, fellow service members or family members

Reaching out is the first step towards recovery. These resources can get you started:

  • Check your mental health. If you are wondering if you have symptoms of a specific mental health condition, you can complete a brief screening tool and get instant feedback. This tool from the Department of Veterans Affairs is confidential and anonymous; none of the results are stored on your account or sent anywhere.
  • TRICARE is the health care program for military members and their families. The program is divided into two regions (East and West), and offers overseas assistance. TRICARE may provide coverage for medically necessary mental health services. Mental Health Care Services offers outpatient psychotherapy for up to two sessions per week in any combination of individually or as a, family, group or collateral sessions. The TRICARE Military Treatment Facility Locator is the locator tool for military treatment centers.
  • The National Institute of Mental Health provides information on a variety of mental health topics and list current clinical trials that allow persons to access treatment for free. Call 866-615-6464.
  • Mental disorders can lead to substance use disorders. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration offers information about prevention, treatment, recovery and more.
  • InTransition is a free, confidential program that offers specialized coaching and assistance to service members, veterans and retirees who need access to mental health care during times of transition, such as returning from deployment, relocating to another assignment or preparing to leave military service.

Mental health for children and youth

Signs in adolescents. Many symptoms in adolescents may be similar to those in adults, but you may notice other characteristics, including:

  • Defiance of authority, truancy, theft or vandalism
  • Decrease in grades
  • Intense fear of weight gain
  • Prolonged negative mood, often accompanied by poor appetite or thoughts of death

Signs in younger children and preadolescents. Young children and preadolescents may display some of the following characteristics:

  • Changes in school performance
  • Poor grades despite strong efforts
  • Excessive worry or anxiety (such as refusing to go to bed or school)
  •  Hyperactivity
  • Persistent nightmares
  • Persistent disobedience or aggression
  • Frequent temper tantrums

Finding help. For children’s mental and behavioral health care, reach out to TRICARE.

Mental and behavioral health concerns and conditions vary greatly in children and adolescents from adults, and special considerations apply for children of military families.

When to step in and help, or ask for help

Don’t let stigma stand in your way of helping — or reaching out. An estimated one in five American adults experience a diagnosable mental health disorder each year. Many of these conditions are common and treatable; yet many people suffer in silence because of shame and stigma. Facing issues early is a sign of strength.

You wouldn’t hesitate to seek help for a physical ailment. So reach out for assistance with depression, anxiety and other mental health issues, and encourage others to do the same.

If you need help immediately: Suicide is a serious issue for service members and their loved ones — and suffering from a mental health disorder can increase the risk. If you or someone you know is at risk, the Military Crisis Line is available 24 hours a day. Call 800-273-8255 and Press 1. You can also start a conversation via online chat or text (838255).

Note: Military OneSource does not provide medical counseling services for issues such as depression, substance use disorders, suicide prevention or post-traumatic stress disorder. This article is intended for informational purposes only. Military OneSource can provide referrals to your local military treatment facility, TRICARE or another appropriate resource.

Resources for Understanding Suicide Prevention in the Military

A soldier walks through a dark tunnel with a light and tree filled opening.

Service members put their life on the line to protect our country. But serious risks may lurk in everyday life for some with intense trainings or as the pace of military life suddenly gets faster and for prolonged periods. And that can be even harder and more confusing to deal with as a loved one.

Suicide is a serious issue in the military. Significant life changes, stress and unique challenges of military life can make service members feel isolated, and some may be at greater risk for suicide than others.

You can make a difference in a loved one’s life by understanding when a service member is most at risk and knowing where to turn for help.

Learn more about when a service member may be at risk for suicide.

Times when a service member can feel added isolation or stress

As part of their network of support, it’s important to be aware of the moments in a service member’s life that can add stress on their mind or body. Service members do not have to be diagnosed with PTSD to be at risk for harming themselves.

Mental health issues can happen to anyone, at any time. Here are some points in a service member’s life when they can feel especially alone, agitated or anxious:

  • Around times of deployment or difficulty readjusting following deployment
  • Loss of a family member, friend or fellow service member
  • Career setbacks or disciplinary actions
  • Difficulty in a marriage or family life
  • Transitioning from military to civilian life
  • Financial difficulty
  • Major life changes

Some ways to be there for your service member in trying times

As a loved one, you know your service member best. Trust your instincts and talk to them if you think they may be having suicidal thoughts.

  • Mention the signs that prompted you to talk to them. Stay calm and let them know you are here to help.
  • Do not counsel them yourself. Ask questions and listen – but encourage them to get professional help if there is a threat.
  • Communication needs to be mostly listening, but ask direct questions without being judgmental, such as:
    • “Are you thinking about killing yourself?”
    • “Have you ever wished you were dead or wished you could go to sleep and not wake up?”
    • “Have you ever tried to end your life?”
    • “Do you think you might try to kill yourself today?”

Resources and mental health help are available

Knowing the risk factors, warning signs and where to turn is the best thing you can do for your service member. Support is available 24/7 both for your loved one in distress and yourself. If someone you know is suicidal or in a state of crisis, the Military Crisis Line/Veterans Crisis Line is available 24 hours a day (1-800-273-8255 and Press 1). Crisis experts are available via online chat or text (838255). Or contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

It’s important to take care of yourself when supporting someone through a hard time. If you also need support, contact the Lifeline.

You can learn more about suicide prevention through the Defense Suicide Prevention Office.