The Significance of Purpose and Meaning for Veterans’ Health

Many veterans with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) live with profound doubts about the meaning of a life perceived as dominated by suffering, guilt, and death. This loss of meaning and purpose has a noticeable impact on their psychological well-being.

“Combat-related Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is often highly debilitating and affects nearly all areas of psychosocial functioning,” wrote Southwick, Gilmartin, McDonough, and Morrissey in 2006. “Veterans with PTSD re-experience their traumas in the form of haunting intrusive memories, nightmares, and flashbacks, and have chronic difficulty modulating arousal. As a way to cope with these symptoms, many survivors live isolated and avoidant lives, self-medicate with alcohol and substances of abuse, and numb themselves to emotional experiences and relationships with family and friends. Additionally, many combat veterans report survivor guilt, depression, affect dysregulation, and an altered world view in which fate is seen as uncontrollable and life is viewed as devoid of meaning.

”Meaning was often derived from their role in a military unit. Service members undergo a significant identity transformation when they join the military in order to assimilate to military culture. This assimilation is structured and deliberate. When a service member leaves the military, however, no similar identity transformation is performed. Often there is a lack of support for assimilation to civilian culture following the end of a military career.

This may lead to a loss of identity and meaning in post-military life. Finding something that provides as much personal satisfaction as military service is frequently difficult for veterans. 

In post-military life, they are transitioning from a collective culture to a loosely connected civilian culture with much less structure.

After discharge, veterans are also leaving a mutually supportive environment for a much more autonomous environment. At the same time, they may be struggling with mental health issues such as PTSD. Service in the military provided a sense of tangible accomplishment with feedback, correction, and encouragement. After discharge, they may be struggling with mental health issues, loss of meaning, and moral injury in isolation. 

This puts them at an elevated risk of developing a substance use disorder (SUD). During active service, many soldiers, airmen, marines, and sailors were exposed to stresses unfamiliar to civilians. Multiple deployments, witnessing extreme violence, combat exposure, and related injuries can function as powerful stressors. 

After discharge, the perceived lack of purpose and unprocessed trauma increase the risk of self-medication with drugs and alcohol. Like their civilian counterparts, they may become addicted because of inappropriate attempts at controlling their emotional pain. 

Comprehensive treatment for mental health and addiction needs to address all underlying issues to be effective. Patients need to reconnect with a sense of purpose and meaning in their life. They need to find activities that provide both purpose (a task to be accomplished) and meaning (a task that satisfies) in post‐military life. If they developed SUD, they need to learn how to replace substance misuse with healthy coping skills. 

The Farley Center at Williamsburg Place proudly helps our men and women in uniform who struggle with substance use disorders. Members of the US military who develop health problems can rely on a healthcare program known as TRICARE. Farley has a lot of experience working with the command structure and healthcare provisions of the US military. A significant percentage of Farley patients have TRICARE coverage. That is quite different from many other addiction treatment centers that don’t take TRICARE at all or are unable to handle TRICARE cases directly—mostly because they are unfamiliar with the provisions of the program.

If you or someone you know is struggling with substance use and could benefit from addiction treatment services, please contact The Farley Center at 800.582.6066 or fill out our admissions request form.