November 09, 2018

By Colleen O’Day

In an era of ongoing armed conflict, the impact of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is more widely recognized than it was 40 years ago when veterans were knee-deep in the atrocities of the Vietnam War. In fact, PTSD wasn’t even recognized as a mental illness until 1980.

While the disorder is more visible today, we usually only see young, male veterans representing all veterans experiencing PTSD. But there’s still a large population of Vietnam veterans who have been struggling with PTSD symptoms for over four decades, often with little support.

recent article by The Family Institute at Northwestern University highlighted the ongoing impact of PTSD in older veterans, and how we can ensure they receive the unique types of support and interventions they need.

What Older Veterans Need

Diagnosis has typically been delayed in older veterans, which means some have been struggling for decades. These heroes face age-related events that could trigger an exacerbation of symptoms—like retirement, the loss of a loved one or changes in health.

Due to their unique needs, some experts suggest older veterans might benefit from a counseling approach that integrates the following:

  • An approach that embraces the veteran’s story and affirms their feelings
  • Technology that increases access and decreases isolation (such as telehealth)
  • An affirmation of the realities of both the trauma and the resulting symptoms of PTSD
  • Peer support

Encouraging older veterans to embrace the benefits of therapy and counseling can be a challenge, so they may prefer to work with professionals who were/are also a member of the military in order to feel a sense of camaraderie.

Delayed-Onset PTSD in Older Veterans

About 31% of male American veterans who served in Vietnam experienced PTSD at some point in their lifetime, according to the National Vietnam Veterans Readjustment Study. A 2013 study on the long-term effects of the conflict found that approximately 1 in 10 veterans who served in Vietnam experienced PTSD 40 years later.

This is called delayed-onset PTSD. Although most people experience symptoms of PTSD within a few months after a traumatic event, sometimes it can be years before someone experiences the full spectrum of their symptoms.

Dr. Dawn M. Wirick, daughter of a Vietnam veteran and a veteran herself, counsels older combat veterans and has seen the effects of delayed trauma: “What they end up telling me is down the road, when they retire, once they aren’t so busy, they start having recurring nightmares.”

There are a variety of complex factors that can lead to delayed-onset PTSD. Some of the main reasons why it was so prevalent among Vietnam veterans were:

  • They were drafted
  • The conflict itself was highly unpopular (so they were reluctant to talk about it)
  • The troops were often treated poorly when they returned home

Additionally, as is the case for most men, they were told to “man up” and be strong, so expressing sadness was viewed as a sign of weakness. In result, many veterans repressed their feelings. This created more complex psychological reactions to their time in combat, andrepressed feelings often find their way to the surface much later.

Older veterans need proper treatment to overcome these long-term effects of living with PTSD. Coming to terms with events that occurred decades ago is no easy task, but access to effective counseling can help validate what they are feeling, eliminate the sense of isolation and begin the healing process. Coming to terms with events that occurred decades ago is no easy task, but access to effective counseling can help validate what they are feeling, eliminate the sense of isolation and begin the healing process.


If you are a veteran in need of help or are concerned about a veteran in your life, visit the Veterans Crisis Line website or call their 24/7 hotline at 1-800-273-8255.


Colleen O’Day is a Digital PR Manager and supports community outreach for 2U Inc.’s social work, mental health, and speech pathology programs. Find her on Twitter @ColleenMODay.

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