How veterans are coping with the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan

Key Takeaways

  • On August 15, the Taliban entered Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, and effectively regained control of the country.
  • Veterans who served in Afghanistan are facing new mental health struggles as events unfold.
  • Coping processes such as therapy and relying on peer veterans can help process the news.

UPDATE: Starting January 17, 2023, all US veterans are eligible for free emergency mental health care. This applies even if the individual is not enrolled in the VA system. The policy covers the cost of an ambulance ride, up to 30 days of inpatient care, and up to 90 days of outpatient care.

On August 15, Taliban fighters entered Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, and took control of the country. In the nearly one month since, civilians and veterans, whether for or against the war, on the ground and around the world have witnessed a rapid return to the pre-2001 status quo and subsequent erasure of a 20-year military presence. For veterans in particular, coping emotionally and psychologically with this turn of events can be incredibly challenging.

“Combat is one of those experiences that you can’t quite put into words. Even if you explain it perfectly, it still doesn’t capture the raw emotion that one feels when deployed and the emotions that are evoked during news coverage of events like what’s happening in Afghanistan right now,” said Rachel Cavallaro, PsyD, LP, MAC is a licensed psychologist with ThriveWorks in Boston and a combat veteran who served in Afghanistan.

“Each veteran may experience these events differently,” Cavallaro adds. “Some may have ongoing depression, anxiety or PTSD where you may see an increase in symptoms. Others may not have these conditions and still experience significant emotions that may be anger or sadness or anxiety.”

Addressing Veteran Mental Health

Overall, veterans experience higher rates of mental health conditions. According to the US Department of Veterans Affairs, 11% to 20% of veterans of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars experience post-traumatic stress disorder in a given year.

In the days following the resumption of Taliban rule, government agencies took steps to boost mental health care for veterans. The U.S. Department of Defense also released a list of mental health services for veterans and their family members to find.

In addition to these resources, veterans can contact their local vet center, said Michael Embrich, a veteran and member of the US Secretary of Veterans Affairs’ Committee on Veterans’ Readjustment. These are a series of community-based counseling centers located to help veterans, active duty service members and their families receive social and psychological services. “Vet center counselors and outreach staff, many of whom are veterans themselves, are experienced and prepared to discuss the tragedies of war, loss, grief and transition after trauma,” he says.

Military family members have also sacrificed—and perhaps lost someone—in Afghanistan. Like those who have served, these individuals may need professional help and loved ones to lean on.

Coping Processes for Veterans

For past and present pain, veterans like Cavallaro use a few strategies to cope with the pain they experience. For starters, he relies heavily on resilience. “Many veterans may struggle with negative thoughts such as ‘Everything I did in Afghanistan was wasted.’ What might be more helpful is a reminder that these efforts helped impact local populations and keep them safe.”

He stresses the importance of focusing on the good things that come out of it, the lifelong friends made and the people who have been helped in the moment.

Rachel Cavallaro, PSD, veteran

War is one of those experiences that you cannot put into words. Even if you explain it perfectly, it still doesn’t capture the raw emotion that one feels when deployed, and the emotions that arise during news coverage of events like what’s happening in Afghanistan right now.

— Rachel Cavallaro, PSD, veteran

He also focuses on gratitude and spirituality. He says the former has been shown to “reduce depression and aid post-traumatic growth.”

During the pandemic and now with recent events in Afghanistan, Cavallaro has also practiced stimulus control by limiting the time he spends absorbing news. “Seeing the images of the withdrawal from Afghanistan is devastating because of all the sacrifices that have been made over the years and it can feel incredibly depressing and veterans can wonder if their sacrifice was worth it or if it was pointless,” said Cavallaro. This can be especially helpful for those who have friends or former colleagues in the country.

In addition to seeking professional care, Embrich recommends reaching out to fellow veterans instead of bottling up your feelings.

Visiting a loved one and talking to them about the situation can make a big difference in a veteran’s mental health, agrees Brian Kinsella, co-founder and CEO of Rapor and co-founder and chairman of Stop Soldier Suicide.

How to check in with an experienced person in your life

Again, each senior has different experiences and emotional responses and thus will react to the news differently. If you’re not a veteran, but you do have one in your life, Cavallaro stresses the importance of starting the conversation—while keeping in mind that some people won’t want to discuss it.

“When discussing the situation with those affected, it’s helpful to remind the person that their story is their story,” says Kinsella. “It’s important for them to remember and focus on what their service means to them.”

Some phrases to remember are permission-based, such as “Can we talk about this?” and “I can’t picture what you’re going through and I want to understand so I can better support you.”

What does this mean for you?

There is no shame or weakness in getting help to deal with mental health problems triggered or exacerbated by the events in Afghanistan. Talking to loved ones, using government-provided resources, and seeing a mental health professional can make a dramatic difference in your well-being.

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