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For Some Veterans, COVID-19 Pandemic Improved Mental Health

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Key Takeaways

  • A research study conducted by Yale University found that 43.3% of veterans experienced positive psychological benefits during the pandemic.
  • Those benefits include a greater appreciation of life, closer relationships, and an increased sense of personal strength. 
  • For some veterans, the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed them to grapple and reflect on their trauma, relationships with others, and personal goals.

The COVID-19 pandemic has strained the mental health and relationships of many, as people experience the toll of lockdowns and social distancing. But a national study conducted among veterans points to a promising new find: some people also experienced positive mental benefits throughout this time.

A national study conducted by Yale University found that among 3,000 veterans, 12.8% of veterans reported post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms related to COVID-19 and 8% contemplated suicide. However, the survey also revealed that 43.3% of respondents said they experienced positive psychological benefits during the pandemic. These benefits included a greater appreciation of life, closer relationships, and an increased feeling of personal growth and strength. 

Robert Pietrzak, PhD, MPH, lead researcher and director of the Translational Psychiatry Epidemiology Laboratory in the Clinical Neurosciences Division of the National Center for PTSD at Yale University in Connecticut, tells Verywell that no study had previously looked at whether the COVID-19 pandemic had any positive psychological outcomes among veterans.

“Given the preponderance of research documenting the negative mental health effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, we wondered whether some veterans might experience positive psychological effects or post-traumatic growth in the midst of the pandemic," he says.

Post-traumatic growth is a positive change experienced as a result of a traumatic event or major life crisis.

"These positive changes were most prevalent in veterans who screened positive for pandemic-related PTSD symptoms, with 71.9% of these veterans reporting moderate or greater levels of post-traumatic growth,” Pietrzak says. 

Experiencing Post-Traumatic Growth

Ron Lotti, a financial advisor and a veteran of the Army National Guard, struggled with isolation and depression. However, he says that after contracting COVID-19, his thought process about life changed. “I was in the hospital. Pretty close to not making it through,” Lotti tells Verywell. “But all of that changed a lot of my thought process."

Lotti, who was diagnosed with PTSD and depression from events related to his tumultuous childhood, says that his COVID-19 hospitalization helped him want to move forward in his relationships with family. “I wasn’t close with my family, my aunts, uncles, everybody. But I ended up hearing from them," Lotti explains. "They were mostly apologetic that things happened the way they did when I was a kid and wishing that they changed.” Lotti told them he wanted to move past his childhood. “I want to move forward and just let all of that go because it’s holding on to all of that and it isn’t doing me any good,” Lotti says. “Absolutely being sick in the hospital brought that perspective out.” 

According to Jessica Stern, PhD, clinical psychologist at the Steven A. Cohen Military Family Center and clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at NYU’s Langone Health, a traumatic experience such as facing death could allow people to find inner strength and build resilience. “Many veterans have been faced with death, either in themselves or in peers who died, which can lead to a greater appreciation of life,” she tells Verywell. 

Research shows that post-traumatic growth can lead to positive outcomes such as:

  • Enhanced interpersonal relationships
  • The realization of possibilities in one’s life that were formerly unrecognized 
  • Perceiving oneself as stronger
  • Increased appreciation of life
  • Spiritual growth 

What This Means For You

If you or your loved one is a veteran, they can get access to Veterans Affairs (VA) mental health services for PTSD, sexual trauma, depression, grief, anxiety, and any other mental health needs. You can learn more about VA mental health services and accessing care here.

Finding a Purpose

While trauma can lead individuals to feel disconnected, Stern says that it can also help bring clarity to veteran’s lives. “For many, it [trauma] can clarify their purpose, establish and maintain more meaningful relationships, and find ways to improve their health, physically and mentally,” Stern says.

Lotti shared that the pandemic allowed him to make use of his time in a positive light. “Over the past year, I’ve been more focused on making myself the best person I possibly can be in order to hopefully be there to help other people for the rest of my life," Lotti adds.

To do that, he honed in on working on himself physically and mentally. “There’s a challenge called 75 Hard, which is working out twice a day, 45 minutes, following a nutrition plan, drinking a gallon of water a day,” Lotti explains. He created his own wellness regimen which consisted of waking up at 5 a.m., meditating, working out indoors, and visualizing what his day would look like. 

Pietrzak stresses that people find ways to confront their trauma and move forward. “Strategies such as creating a narrative of the experience, sharing feelings about it, and learning how to regulate emotions can help,” Pietrzak says. “Post-traumatic growth may also be fostered in part by strong emotional support from others.”

For Navy veteran of USS America Melissa Gill, founder of the Steam Box, the pandemic brought her closer to therapy, which helped her confront her trauma and PTSD. “I’ve been avoiding my trauma and all my triggers of PTSD for so long," Gill tells Verywell. "And it [the pandemic] made me really dig deep into my trauma instead of avoiding those memories.”

Gill was able to seek treatment for her PTSD through a therapy program with the San Diego Veteran Affairs. “There were about five months where I met with my therapist daily,” Gill says. “And that kind of really made me force myself to start dealing with some of that trauma I hadn’t been able to.”

Looking Forward

Although the pandemic has contributed to negative mental health effects such as suicide contemplation and exacerbated PTSD among participants, the results of the study revealed positive psychological changes. “Our finding linking greater pandemic-related post-traumatic growth, particularly greater appreciation of life and improved relationships with others, with a significantly lower likelihood of suicidal thinking during the pandemic underscores the importance of evaluating post-traumatic growth-promoting interventions as part of suicide risk prevention and treatment efforts in veterans,” Pietrzak says. 

“I just turned 40 and I don’t have a ton of time left to make a positive impact. I need to make the most of every single moment,” Lotti reflects. “Who do I care most about in my life? How do I make sure that they know that? And how can I leave as big of a positive legacy as I possibly can in case I don’t have much time left?”

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

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  2. UNC Charlotte. Post-traumatic Growth Research Group. What is PTG? Updated February 14, 2013.

  3. Stein JY, Levin Y, Bachem R, Solomon Z. Growing apart: a longitudinal assessment of the relation between post-traumatic growth and loneliness among combat veterans. Front Psychol. 2018;9:893. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00893