Help with adjusting to civilian life after years of military service?

Originally Published: March 5, 2010 - Last Updated / Reviewed On: August 16, 2013
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Dear Alice,

I spent 11 years in the service and multiple deployments to Iraq, Afghanistan, and other places where I saw combat. I wanted to retire from the military, but not in the manner that I did. I was medically retired last year and I know that I am having issues with readjusting to my new life, have post traumatic stress disorder, and traumatic brain injury from some blasts during my last deployment. My problem is that I do go to the VA and I am trying to get my life moving forward, but it seems they just keep giving me a handful of some pretty powerful pills and are not really doing much for me. I have been on and off several different sleeping, anti-depressant, anxiety, and a lot of other stuff that I don't really know about for almost a year now. Are there other resources available for disabled veterans to use other than the VA? If so how do I get in contact with them? And should I continue taking all this medication that makes me feel like a zombie?

Dear Reader,

For many veterans, settling back into civilian life feels less like a homecoming and more like landing on another planet. In addition to the normal readjustment process, mental health issues like depression or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may contribute to the "zombie"-like feeling you describe. Thankfully, there are a wide range of organizations and services committed to helping service men and women find their footing back home.

After the initial excitement of coming home wears off, acclimating to civilian life after military service can be difficult. Some uncertainty about how to navigate the transition is normal, but veterans who notice any of the following signs may want to seek help:

  • Depression lasting longer than two weeks
  • Frequent anxiety or panic attacks
  • Flashbacks or regular nightmares (these may be a sign of PTSD)
  • Resorting to physical violence or emotional abuse
  • History of mental health problems or other trauma
    List adapted from the article When the Letdown Doesn't Let Up from Mental Health America.

Give yourself a pat on the back for taking the initiative to visit your local branch of the United States Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) and enter treatment for your mental health concerns. Unfortunately, it sounds like you've been disappointed with that care. To begin with, it's your prerogative to understand which meds you've been prescribed and how they work, so don't hesitate to ask your health care provider at the VA for more information. Next, you may also want to tell your provider at the VA about the medication side effects you've experienced. S/he may be able to adjust the dosage of your medication or offer another brand of the same drug to relieve your discomfort. Even if you're unhappy with the way your meds are working now, it's not a good idea to stop taking them on your own. Monkeying with meds like anti-depressants can cause withdrawal symptoms such as dizziness, headaches, nausea, and trouble sleeping. For more background on side effects and withdrawal symptoms associated with anti-depressants, check out Will anti-anxiety meds make me a zombie? and Anti-depressant withdrawal in the Go Ask Alice! Emotional Health archive.

Additionally, consider asking your health care provider about alternatives (or complements) to medication like psychotherapy, exercise, meditation, and other mind-body techniques to reduce stress and promote good mental health. Most people dealing from mental health troubles, like depression and anxiety disorders, do best with a combination of medication and talk therapy. If your current provider is not able or willing to modify your treatment plan, you may want to look elsewhere for care.

Since World War II, Columbia's School of General Studies (GS) has educated service men and women. The GS program links veteran students to a range of services, including Counseling and Psychological Services (CPS) on the Morningside Campus and the Mental Health Service on the CUMC campus. You may also be interested in U.S. Military Veterans of Columbia University, also known as MilVets, a student group that brings together service men and women in the Columbia community.

Off-campus, veterans who need assistance readjusting to civilian life or with mental health issues can look to the following resources for general support and referrals:

Operation Healthy Reunions — Sponsored by Mental Health America, this program aims to break down the stigma surrounding mental health problems among veterans. The website provides information and links to mental health and family services.

The National Veterans Foundation (NVF) — The NVF operates a telephone helpline for veterans and their families and helps vets access a range of services including health care, insurance, and home financing.

Military Pathways — The Department of Defense and a non-profit called Screening for Mental Health teamed up to create this website which provides an online mental health screening tool for service members. The site also includes video testimonials about the impact of military stressors, referrals to care, and articles about a range of health topics affecting service members.

Hopefully this information helps you feel less adrift and more ready to march on with your post-military life. Take care,

Alice