Do These 4 Things As Soon As You Separate From the Military

These 4 steps are vital for veteran mental health.

Leaving the military brings about incredibly difficult strain. Although most people know about the difficulties surrounding finding a job, few will describe the emotional struggle associated with separating from service.

But veterans still suffer from enormously high rates of suicide, divorce, and homelessness. Putting aside all the “veteran with PTSD” stereotypes, it’s clear that leaving such a strong culture after years of service can bring on strong feelings of isolation and depression.

So how can a newly-minted veteran mitigate so much of the pain of separating from service? Do these 4 things as soon as you leave the military, and you’ll find yourself moving on with confidence and optimism.

1) Quit Drinking


Quitting drinking will provide you greater mental stability for the trying times ahead.

As I’ve written in another post, to quit drinking means not exacerbating the feelings that inevitably come up and to negotiate them healthily. This is because drinking suppresses the part of your brain that processes emotions and controls inhibition. When you drink, you stimulate stronger emotions while also preventing yourself from controlling and processing them. It also makes it more difficult to connect with and relate to other people, making feelings of isolation more likely.

I’m not going to pretend that quitting drinking altogether is easy, but it is worth it. And if you can replace your drinking habit with better workout habits or a new hobby, you’ll doubly benefit from better physical and mental health.

2) Find a group of non-veteran friends


These people will be critical to your transition.

One of the best things that you can do for your transition is to find a group of civilians to hang out with that have never served in the military. While this may seem counter-intuitive, the reason is simple. You are trying to integrate back into civilian society, and these people are all pretty much experts at being civilians. Find an interest group around a hobby, neighborhood, or work community and become friends with them. These people will happily provide critical advice and support for you for the next few difficult months or years.

A note of caution: don’t join a group of people focused on drinking or drugs or that have a persistently negative viewpoint. These people will not help you, and will actively harm your efforts to move on with your life and affect your mental health. Also, work to avoid toxic friendships and relationships. If the friendship, relationship, or group makes you feel bad, don’t stick around.

3) Find a group of veteran friends


These people will help you remember what you've already accomplished.

A similar group of positive, successful veterans will help you in times when what you need most is someone to understand where you’ve been. You want to find a group that have been out for a few years longer than you, or that are going through the same things you are. My veteran business-school peers are some of my closest friends now, and we constantly stay in touch to talk about what’s going on in our lives. My mental health wouldn’t be as healthy as it is now if I didn’t have these connections.

This last point is key: like the warning above, don’t get involved in the same negative behaviors I previously described, and don’t get involved in a group that isn’t interested in moving on with their lives. If every single conversation is about life back in the military, it’s not healthy. That’s not to say that you won’t talk about the military; it just shouldn’t dominate your interactions. Remember, the key to this whole thing is separating from service successfully.

4) Go to therapy


Everyone needs therapy at some point in their lives. Starting it before any kind of crisis starts and you’ll be well-prepared.

You’ve probably spent years under the iron thumb of the military and its stigma against mental health. The military has gone to great lengths to try and reduce that stigma, but it’s clearly still alive and well.

Now that you are out of the military, though, it’s useful to talk to someone that 1) has only your interests and mental health in mind (not the military’s), 2) understands what you are going through because they specialize in veterans’ issues or are veterans themselves, and 3) can help you navigate the changes in your emotions, worldview, and relationships with compassion.

Not all therapists are created equally. Finding a good therapist may take a little time. You want to find one who

  • does not shy away from having an emotional connection with you (this is important for “limbic resonance”);
  • can offer challenge you as well as offer advice and perspective, not just mirrors your emotions;
  • can be reached at all hours with a callback. This means that you are free to call them at any time and leave a message, and they will call you back as soon as possible. This is important for navigating potential crises;
  • has time to see you weekly and is affordable for you. If the therapist is only available every other week, I would pass. That just generally isn’t enough time to deal with all the things that come up.

There are quick primers for how to find a therapist at Metanoia, Good Therapy, the American Psychological Association (APA), and Psychology Today. Be thorough, and don’t settle. It makes a dramatic difference.

These four tasks may seem either very difficult or trivially easy. Each item, though, is based around alleviating the most difficult problems veterans face: connecting with others (especially civilians), understanding what’s expected of them, handling painful emotions associated with major life changes, and building community. By doing each of these four recommended things, you too can help ensure a smooth transition to civilian life.

Good luck. If you need any help or advice, don’t hesitate to contact me.