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Our survey found that 90% of Afghan war vets with a history of mental illness are experiencing new or worsening symptoms since the Taliban recaptured Afghanistan.
Dan Jarvis, Army veteran and founder of 22Zero, a Florida-based nonprofit working to end veteran suicide, describes feeling “disbelief, anger, and sadness” as he watched Afghanistan fall. “My reaction mimics many of the veterans who served in combat in Afghanistan,” Jarvis explains. “In the veteran community, I don’t know if there is any trust left in our leaders or our government.”
This type of response is normal for individuals who experienced traumatic events, according to Clinical Counselor Danny Taylor.
“Trauma can alter how people think about themselves, others, and the world,” says Taylor. “The current situation in Afghanistan is a painful reminder of the traumatic experiences service members may have had in Afghanistan. This can lead to ideas that nothing is safe, and no one can be trusted.”
According to researchers, more than 30,000 veterans of the Global War on Terror (which includes the War in Afghanistan and the Iraq War that lasted from 2003 to 2011) have died by suicide.
Now, the fall of Afghanistan is triggering new or worsening thoughts of suicide in 64% of veterans coping with mental illness. Thirty-two percent are experiencing new thoughts of suicide, while another 32% indicate their suicidal thoughts have grown worse in the past few weeks.
Since the Afghan government collapsed, and the Taliban took over in mid-August, 75% of veterans with a history of mental illness are reporting new or worsening depression symptoms. Thirty-eight percent of veterans say their depression symptoms are getting worse, while 37% are experiencing new feelings of depression.
Similarly, three-fourths of these veterans say they are experiencing new outbursts of anger (42%) or worsening outbursts of anger (32%) since the situation in Afghanistan deteriorated.
Starting or increasing drug and alcohol use appears to exacerbate feelings of anger in veterans. Eighty-four percent of respondents who say their drug and alcohol use has increased since the Taliban recaptured Afghanistan also report new or worsening anger outbursts.
According to Dr. Holly Schiff, a licensed clinical psychologist, these outbursts of anger may be triggered by feelings of powerlessness or fear about the situation in Afghanistan.
“Veterans are usually looking for meaning and how the conflict ends definitely holds some significance,” Schiff says. “These individuals made enormous sacrifices and the fall of Afghanistan had them reflect on if everything they did was worth it. This can lead to feelings of depression and anger.”
Our survey also found that a small majority of Afghanistan veterans with a history of mental illness are turning to substances in the wake of the country’s capture by the Taliban. Thirty-three percent of veterans have increased their drug and/or alcohol use, while 22% started using drugs and/or alcohol for the first time.
As in other cases, the presence of other mental health challenges appears to exacerbate drug and alcohol use. Forty-five percent of veterans who are experiencing new or worsening suicidal thoughts have increased their drug and/or alcohol use since Afghanistan fell, while 26% of those individuals started using drugs and/or alcohol for the first time.
When asked if they are seeking help from a mental health professional, 37% of respondents say they were already working with a therapist or counselor prior to the fall of Afghanistan.
However, 31% of veterans sought professional mental health help for the first time since the country fell in mid-August, reflecting the severe impact the situation has had on troops that served in the country.
“I have absolutely seen an increase in patients who are veterans since the fall of Afghanistan,” says Schiff. “This makes sense given the fact that this situation may trigger unresolved issues or past traumas that they now have to address and deal with all over again.”
Taylor also encourages veterans who may be struggling with new or worsening mental health symptoms in the wake of Afghanistan’s fall to reach out for assistance.
“The most important coping tool is reaching out for support,” Taylor says. “Talk with a family member, a good friend, a trusted co-worker. If you’re struggling in isolation, summon the courage to contact a local mental health organization for support.”
Taylor also advises veterans who are struggling mentally to pay attention to their physical health, by maintaining a good sleep schedule, staying active, following a healthy diet, and practicing mindfulness to deal with stressful or intrusive thoughts.
Below is a closer look at how the fall of Afghanistan is affecting veterans of different demographic groups, including male and female vets, and veterans from different age brackets.
Prior to the fall of Afghanistan, male and female veterans experienced mental health symptoms at roughly the same rates.
Now, however, men are slightly more likely than women to say they are experiencing new thoughts of suicide, by a rate of 35% to 29%. Meanwhile, 33% of men and 31% of women say their thoughts of suicide have worsened.
Men are also more likely than women to report new feelings of depression, by a rate of 40% to 33%. The same number of men and women, 38%, say their depression symptoms worsened as the Taliban recaptured Afghanistan.
Although men are more likely than women to report new outbursts of anger, by a rate of 46% to 37%, women are more likely than men to say that their anger outbursts are getting worse, by a rate of 34% to 30%.
The same number of male and female vets have started using drugs and alcohol since Afghanistan’s fall (22%). Forty percent of male vets, and 32% of female vets, say that their drug and alcohol use has increased.
Amid all of these new or worsening mental health symptoms, 34% of male veterans have sought help from a mental health professional, as have 27% of female veterans.
An increase in anger is highest among young veterans. Forty-six percent of vets ages 18-24 who experienced mental health symptoms since returning from Afghanistan report new feelings of anger about the way the war, roughly as old as they are, has ended.
The situation has also triggered new drug and alcohol use among 25% of people in this age group.
On a more positive note, veterans in this age group are also the most likely to be seeking professional help for these issues. Thirty-six percent report that they started seeing a counselor since Afghanistan was recaptured by the Taliban, while 33% already were being treated by a mental health professional.
Meanwhile, among the oldest veterans of the War in Afghanistan, new thoughts of suicide appear to be an emerging issue. Forty-two percent of veterans 55 and older report that they have been experiencing new suicidal thoughts since Afghanistan’s fall. This group is also the least likely to be seeking counseling, either prior to the current situation in Afghanistan (21%) or since the country was recaptured by the Taliban (27%).
The plurality of veterans ages 35-44 are experiencing new outbursts of anger (44%), and new depressive symptoms (42%). Forty-four percent of veterans in this age group also report that their drug and alcohol intake has increased since the fall of Afghanistan.
All data found within this report derives from a survey commissioned by OnlineTherapy.com and conducted online by survey platform Pollfish. In total, 1,250 U.S. military veterans who served in Afghanistan between 2001 and 2021 were surveyed. Appropriate respondents were found via a screening question. Respondents also had to confirm that they were comfortable taking a survey that included questions regarding suicide and mental health. This survey was conducted over a two-day span, starting on August 26, 2021, and ending on August 27, 2021. All respondents were asked to answer all questions truthfully and to the best of their abilities. For full survey data, please email [email protected]