Blog: 40 Years Since Vietnam

According to the recently released National Vietnam Veterans Longitudinal Study (NVVLS), there are both encouraging and alarming findings regarding the long-term mental health of combat veterans.   

The study is a congressionally mandated assessment of the long-term impact of combat experience.  In this three-minute NPR interview with Charles Marmar, Chair of Psychiatry at NYU and first author of this report from the NVVLS, he begins with the good news: Seventy to seventy five percent of veterans studied did not develop serious mental illness linked to the war. No PTSD, depression or substance abuse.  This is good news and important to remember since a common misconception is that the vast majority of veterans are struggling with serious mental illness and are often suicidal. It can also be harmful, and stigmatizing, to assume every veteran is mentally ill.  However, the absence of serious mental illness “doesn’t mean they haven’t been affected by their experiences, for sure.  To go to war is a profound experience and changes you forever in many ways, but they didn’t break down with psychiatric illness,” said Marmar in the interview.

But this is very significant-- 11 percent of veterans, according to this study, do continue to struggle with mental illness, specifically PTSD, depression and/or substance abuse.

Dr. Marmar extrapolates from the results that more than 250,000 veterans struggle daily with mental health problems linked to the traumas they experienced more than 40 years ago. This incidence is 10 times the rate of veterans who did not serve in Vietnam.

Also interviewed is psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Judith Broder, founder of the Soldier’s Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to providing free, confidential psychological services to US military veterans and their loved ones, who provided perspective on the impact of war-related PTSD over time and across communities and generations. Broder notes that for every veteran in trouble, at least 10 relatives and friends are affected. According to Dr. Broder, the implication from this study is that hundreds of thousands of veterans and their families, from the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, will be burdened by mental health issues for decades to come.

Summarizing the study’s conclusions in the JAMA Psychiatry article, Dr. Marmar writes, “These findings underscore the need for mental health services for many decades for veterans with PTSD symptoms.” We encourage you to listen to this NPR report and download the NVVLS study here.

By Prudence Gourguechon and Wylie Tene

Photo credit: AP photojournalist Horst Faas