Veterans experiencing PTSD and other mental health problems may find relief and a smoother transition to civilian life by doing civic volunteer work.
When their stint in the military is over, veterans returning to civilian life may be faced with a host of problems. Adjusting to life on the home front can be especially difficult for vets suffering from mental health problems, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
PTSD affects about 7.7 million American adults, and members of the military exposed to combat are at high risk for developing the condition, according to the National Institutes of Health. Marked by “flashbacks” of traumatic experiences, nightmares, and avoidance of situations that trigger reminders of trauma, PTSD is often accompanied by depression, anxiety, and substance abuse, too.
Treatment typically includes medication and psychological therapy. But now a Saint Louis University study concludes something else may reduce symptoms of PTSD and related mental disorders and help smooth the transition to civilian life, as well. This new “prescription” is volunteer work.
The Saint Louis University team investigated how volunteering 20 hours a week on specific civil service projects for six months impacted the health and social life of 346 U.S. vets who served in Iraq or Afghanistan. The vets were assigned volunteer work with community agencies throughout the country by The Mission Continues, a national non-profit organization that helps connect vets with civic service missions.
Working as a civil service volunteer is different from other types of less structured volunteering, such as helping with activities at a church or a charity organization. It is more like a job, the researchers noted, because civil service volunteers are given clearly defined goals and a stipend and are required to meet specific accountability requirements.
Before they started their volunteer work, more than 50 percent of the vets studied were suffering from symptoms of PTSD. Almost half said they were receiving treatment for a mental health condition and 20 percent had symptoms of depression.
But after their six-month stint of volunteer work, completed between 2011 and 2014, a dramatic number of the vets said their physical health was better than before they started their volunteering, and their emotional and mental health had improved, too, according to the research findings.
Symptoms of depression decreased from over 23 percent before their volunteer work started to 15 percent afterwards. And while over half of the veterans had PTSD symptoms before their civil service, that number decreased to 43 percent afterwards. The vets also reported feeling less lonely and isolated, and they said they now realized help was available for their problems.
“All veterans in the civic service program experienced improvements in physical health, mental health, and social functioning,” said Monica Matthieu, PhD, lead author of the study and assistant professor of social work at Saint Louis University.
“Importantly, even after controlling for current treatment, veterans with positive depression screens when entering the program benefited the most with significant improvements in purpose in life, enhanced social support, and decreased feelings of loneliness. Those screening positive for probable PTSD, again, after controlling for current treatment, showed significant improvements at the end of the program.”
More research is needed to find out exactly how volunteerism can help relieve PTSD symptoms and other mental health problems vets may experience, according to the Saint Louis University researchers.
“One of our theories has to do with behavioral activation and the purpose surrounding the activity,” Mattheiu said. “So in other words, when we get up and move, and that movement is geared toward a purpose of helping others, it is like stepping outside our own lives to focus on the needs of others, and so many positive things come together.”
June 27, 2017
Christopher Nystuen, MD, MBA