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Social support of veterans especially important during pandemic

Social support of veterans especially important during pandemic

MAY 6, 2020 — Although social distancing and self-isolation measures have slowed the spread of COVID-19 in the United States, psychologists and advocates worry about the impact these orders have had on the most vulnerable members of society. One of those populations is those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental and physical health conditions, including military veterans.

Although most military veterans do not have PTSD, a significant percentage will, and health care professionals are worried that social isolation might not only worsen PTSD symptoms but also increase the risk for suicide.

To address this concern, Sandra Morissette, a clinical psychologist, professor and interim chair of the Department of Psychology at UTSA, was recently funded by the Veterans Administration to study the impact of changing social networks during COVID-19 on mental health and suicide in veterans. This research will help Morissette and her team do a deeper dive into understanding the impact of social networks on suicide, which could in turn inform how suicide prevention is approached.

According to a 2019 VA report, the suicide rate among veterans was 1.5 times the national average—even before the pandemic swept the country. “Seventeen veterans die each day from suicide. Because of the strong protective link between social support and suicide, there is deep concern from psychologists and other mental health providers about the impact of loneliness and isolation related to this pandemic on suicide rates,” Morissette said. “That’s true for both veterans and civilians.”

“Knowing when to ask for—and receive—help can be critical for well-being and create a sense of belonging.”

Most veterans, Morissette said, are generally very resilient people who are often well-trained to handle stressful situations and crises. However, some feel marginalized in their professional, educational or family lives after they return from combat, and they struggle to reintegrate into civilian norms. Isolation only exacerbates the loneliness, a feeling that’s directly tied to the highest levels of depression and suicidal thoughts in former service members.

The broader focus of Morissette’s research is to identify modifiable risk and resilience factors that contribute to functional recovery and impairment following war zone deployments. She aims to provide a platform for the development of novel interventions that will help veterans who are struggling with recovery and reintegration. For more than a decade she has worked with a group of national collaborators to conduct a series of longitudinal trials to better understand how veterans function after deployment and war zone experiences.

In one of these papers Morissette and her collaborators demonstrated that, even when veterans had high PTSD symptoms, they had less suicidal ideation when surrounded by high perceived social support. When these veterans had low perceived social support, however, they experienced the greatest levels of suicidal ideation.

“Since then, we’ve been very interested in understanding the relationship between social support and other social processes, like belongingness, on suicidal thoughts and behavior,” Morissette explained.

Actively seeking that social support can be a challenge during the current pandemic. Because they are trained to be self-sufficient and serve others, veterans tend not to ask for help, Morissette elaborated. Such help could take many forms, including leaning on a friend for a listening ear, asking a neighbor to pick up something from the grocery store or simply recognizing the need for professional help.

“Knowing when to ask for—and receive—help can be critical for well-being and create a sense of belonging and connectedness in the midst of isolation,” Morissette said.

Learn more about Sandra Morissette’s research on veteran mental health.
Download the UTSA Mobile app to connect with the Center for Military Affiliated Students.
Visit UTSA’s Office of Veteran and Military Affairs online.
Follow UTSA Veteran and Military Affairs on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

The UTSA Office for Veteran and Military Affairs has worked tirelessly to cultivate a supportive community for student veterans and military-affiliated students at the university. VMA has continued to maintain that level of engagement through the COVID-19 pandemic and is currently in the process of recreating its Coffee with Vets event for the virtual environment on May 22.

Lisa Carrington Firmin, associate vice president for veteran and military affairs at UTSA, noted both the importance of Morissette’s research and her office’s role in social support for UTSA’s military-affiliated population.

“Engaging and networking with others who have shared common experiences are vital to maintaining positive environments where veterans can thrive,” Firmin said. “These type of informal yet impactful events can be lifelines to some and bring key individuals together to provide much needed information and services to others.”

Shea Conner

UTSA Today is produced by University Strategic Communications,
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of The University of Texas at San Antonio.

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