Recent studies show loneliness is a key contributor to veterans’ depression, suicide, and more.
The loneliness a veteran experiences is a certain kind of disconnection that’s different from what a civilian might feel. And the loneliest veterans are the least likely to seek help.
If you’re a vet, you’ve probably noticed this among your peers, and maybe even in yourself. But feeling this disconnected is unsustainable, and no matter how unique your experiences have been, there are always at least some people who understand.
It’s a matter of having tools to bridge the disconnect – but sadly, society hasn’t prioritized bringing these tools to veterans, who we claim to value.
So how can you cope and even conquer this barrier to a contented life? We interviewed a group of veterans to get some insight and work toward an answer.
Loneliness: a fierce foe for veterans
Much research on the struggles veterans face has focused on an epidemic of veteran suicides — as many as twenty per day. One retired service member recalls his deployment with 800 other soldiers, and now mourns the losses of 40 peers to suicide.
Loneliness has long been ignored as a factor in veterans’ wellbeing. But a relatively recent Yale University study found that loneliness was a top predictor of depression and suicidal thoughts, along with disability.
It’s no surprise that loneliness has such a strong emotional impact on vets, when it’s a known factor in even physical health and wellbeing.
Loneliness has been clearly connected to physical health challenges, including increased risk of high blood pressure, cognitive decline, depression and mortality. So wanting to feel connected means wanting to take care of yourself, as you deserve.
While loneliness causes mental and physical struggles that can only be helped by reaching out, the VA has published info on a telling trend: the lonelier a veteran is, the less likely they are to seek help or take care of their health.
This might be due to denial, fear of judgement, or the stigma of reaching out. Or maybe the loneliest vets have been repeatedly disappointed by those enlisted to help them, so they give up.
Veterans struggle to connect with civilian life – and civilians
One study calls loneliness the “discrepancy between the social relationships we have and the social relationships we wish to have.” You can be in a crowd and feel lonely, or be by yourself and not feel lonely at all. And that’s doubly so for Veterans, whose experience creates some large barriers to fulfilling relationships in the civilian world.
It’s not unusual that it takes time for a veteran to re-adjust to the civilian world. A group of San Francisco Bay Area researchers interviewed veterans and found a common theme: that “normal is alien” for returning veterans. This project found that most veterans shared feelings of:
- lack of structure in civilian life,
- loss of purpose, and
- unsupportive institutions.
The two biggest barriers relating to loneliness are disconnection, and the different structure of civilian life. Let’s dive into how these can isolate veterans, but also how to overcome the unique struggle of veteran loneliness.
Lack of structure
Air Force Senior Master Sergeant Mike Daggett explained in an interview that when you deploy in the military, you are basically “issued” colleagues, friends, and a social life with those in your unit, and you bond through your intense shared experience.
Uniforms tell you a person’s rank and job, so social and work rules are clear. Peers in the military become your second family, or, for some, your first or chosen family.
When you’re “assigned” your family like that, you get used to meeting and connecting with people that way. And then when you’re inevitably separated from your newfound family, the lack of structure in civilian relationships can make connections feel out of reach.
Back home, civilians can ask insensitive questions and make unwarranted assumptions. And society at large is usually distracted by other priorities and responsibilities. Returning veterans often feel disconnected from others due to their different outlook on relationships and the whole world.
Spc. Richard McPhail, retired 82nd Airborne Division, returned to his small town in Nebraska to find that many of his friends and family had simply moved away.
Retired army veteran Al Burch pointed out that many marriages that have weathered long-distance don’t survive upon reunification. That may be because service members have become adjusted to a different structure of life – one that’s not compatible with their old relationships.
In fact, enlisted first line military supervisors have the highest divorce rate of any profession for those under 30, with 30 percent of couples divorcing.
NBC’s hit television show, This is Us, opened its 2019 season by sharing Cassidy’s return from the Marines. Cassidy’s struggle shows the disconnect can extend past just romantic relationships, to veterans’ family dynamics. She struggles to reconnect with her family, tackle home maintenance issues, and respond at an appropriate level when she is upset with her son.
In real life, these kinds of challenges may amplify over time, causing deep loneliness in veterans.
Many veterans talked with us about feeling overly sensitized to the world around them. This hypervigilance was appropriate for the battlefield, but not the soccer field upon return.
One retired colonel said that if he walked into a coffee shop, he’d have everyone in the room categorized, within seconds. Which doesn’t sound very fun when you’re just trying to enjoy the morning.
Veterans experience a different level of vigilance that civilians don’t share, appreciate, or need. Al Burch mentions that veterans are often unfairly judged as cold or uncaring when they were just trained to be stoic, and less rattled by day-to-day ups and downs.
The experience of veterans leaves them with a different risk tolerance, and that impedes connection.
How veterans can fight loneliness effectively
With all these factors you can’t change, how can you return to a “normal life” that does not feel normal? How can you feel seen and understood in a world where very few have been through what you have?
Be patient with yourself, and be open to possibility. Start doing things that help you feel more whole and integrated into the civilian world. Below are some approaches to relieve loneliness while honoring – not abandoning – your past in the service.
Volunteer your expertise and understanding
Having served your country may have made you feel disconnected from the civilian world. But your service made you an expert in being a veteran.
So why not try volunteering for veterans’ causes, where you can feel valued for your experience, instead of misunderstood?
Senior Master Sergeant Mike Daggett found his post-military job by volunteering, which led him to start his own nonprofit called Operation FatDag. His nonprofit helps current service members who are at peril of losing a career in the Armed Services to obesity.
Find a veteran-friendly career path
Upon return from service, it might feel like a challenge to meet the expectations of civilian employers. Or you might feel strange around your coworkers.
Connect with people who share your struggles
Groups like We Are Project Hero advocate for veterans recovering from or living with injuries, and create exciting athletic events. In October, the group cycled from Santa Cruz to Santa Barbara. The event attracted veterans from around the country, who started off the ride with a full police escort motorcade. Time with others, working toward the same goal, can be a simple yet important bonding experience.
You can also connect over shared struggles in brick-and-mortar support groups, or right here, online and 24/7.
Feel seen in a romantic relationship
Thinking of dating? Don’t hesitate to explain why you eat quickly or choose the restaurant chair where you face the door. When dating a civilian, it’s ok to explain what you need — share some advice on dating a veteran.
Dating can be a big loneliness-buster for veterans, and in-person meetups aren’t the only answer. One Portland VA doctor sometimes wrote actual prescriptions for veterans to try online dating if they felt shy.
Readjust with nature’s help
Still not ready to reach out to others? Try some more solitary activities that allow you to connect in a non-threatening way. Start by expressing your experience, or connecting with other vets, over art. Or go on a trip to nature along with other veterans.
Dr. Somnath Saha, a staff physician at the VA Portland Health Care System also suggests getting a pet (or volunteering at a local shelter) for lonely veterans.
She mentions at least one instance when “that cat did more for [a veteran] than anything [the hospital] did.” For veterans, a pet can relieve loneliness just enough to make connecting with people feel do-able.
Take your time, be proud of your experience in the service, and win the battle with loneliness. If you’re a veteran who would just like a listening ear along the way, we’re here at Supportiv any time, any day. Veterans receive a free 30 days of peer support with code SAFETY.
You really are never alone, even when it feels that way.