Depression in the military, including family members, is higher than in the general population. But support is available to reduce symptoms and improve overall well-being.

Depression is a serious mental health condition. People with depression often experience symptoms, such as, low mood and hopelessness.

Military service members, veterans, and their families should strongly consider seeking help if they believe they have depression. It may greatly improve their quality of life.

People in the military are more likely to experience depression than members of the general population. Research suggests that:

  • 23% of active-duty military are living with depression
  • 18% of active-duty military who use drugs and 9% of those who consume alcohol have had suicidal ideations or attempts
  • 11% of active-duty military have attempted suicide or have suicidal ideations

The same study showed that the risk of depression continues to be higher than the general population following service in the military. The researchers found:

  • 20% of veterans have depression
  • 11% of veterans have suicidal ideation or attempts

Some research suggests the reason for the elevation in suicidal thoughts or actions is due to the increased level of trauma, particularly in veterans who saw active combat.

Other studies suggest that reasons a person in the military can be more likely to be diagnosed with depression may include:

  • seeing themselves and others in danger
  • being separated from a support system of loved ones and friends
  • experiencing the intense stress of combat
  • legal concerns from the uniformed code of justice
  • command leadership discord
  • physical fitness concerns
  • frequent relocations
  • deployments
  • rank and promotion complications

Perhaps adding to the rate is the misconception and stigma of mental health in the military in general. A person may may fear being made fun of, demoted, or perceived as weak.

For more information, consider Psych Central’s depression hub.

Suicide prevention for military members and families

If you know someone in the military at immediate risk of suicide, self-harm, or hurting another person, take these steps:

  • Ask them: “Are you considering suicide?”
  • Listen to them without judgment.
  • Call 911 or the local emergency number or text “TALK” to 741741 to connect with a trained crisis counselor.
  • Stay with the person until professional help arrives.
  • Try to remove any weapons, potential weapons, or medications from them while being aware of your own safety.

If you know someone in the military who is having thoughts of suicide, a prevention hotline may help. The 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline is available 7 days a week, 24 hours a day at 988.

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Not everyone will experience the same symptoms. But military and Veterans Affairs (VA) doctors base their diagnosis on the presence of at least five of the following signs.

Diagnosis is dependent on if these symptoms are shown for two weeks or more within a 1-month period.

These signs include:

  • depressed mood most of the day, nearly every day
  • significant weight loss when not dieting or weight gain
  • fatigue or loss of energy every day
  • markedly diminished interest or pleasure in almost all activities most of the day, nearly every day
  • insomnia or hypersomnia nearly every day
  • moving slower or faster than usual nearly every day
  • attempt or a specific plan for committing suicide
  • feelings of worthlessness or excessive inappropriate guilt
  • diminished ability to think, concentrate, or indecisiveness, nearly every day
  • suicidal thoughts or behaviors, or the sense of being better off dead, even if not wanting to harm oneself

Active duty

In active duty service members, depression may look like:

  • no longer interested in going out on leave
  • taking needless risks
  • inability to concentrate
  • fatigue
  • weight loss or gain
  • depressed mood
  • insomnia
  • trouble completing tasks
  • seeming distracted


Veterans may show signs of depression such as:

  • recreational drug use
  • trouble obtaining or maintaining employment
  • sullen mood
  • no interest in pleasurable activities
  • inability to concentrate
  • fatigue
  • weight loss or gain
  • depressed mood
  • insomnia

Family members

Family members of people in the armed services may also face depression. Due to the fear of stigma, family members, like their military family member, may take steps to hide their depression. Signs to look for can include:

  • decreased interest in pleasurable activities
  • inability to concentrate
  • fatigue
  • weight loss or gain
  • depressed mood
  • insomnia

Excessive drinking or drug use is considered a separate mental health condition, but it often occurs along with depression. It could indicate difficulties in experiencing depression or other mental health difficulties.

Stigma in the military and military families is a recognized phenomenon that can stop people from seeking help. A person in the military may worry about how their peers will perceive them or that they won’t get a promotion if they go for help for their depression.

Similarly, spouses and other family members may feel like they need to “be strong” and not jeopardize their spouse’s chances of promotion.

In a 2018 study, researchers found that PTSD in the service member may be the most likely cause of increased the risk of depression in their spouse. Other possible factors include:

  • less educational attainment
  • unemployment
  • having four or more children
  • having prior military service

Military service members and their families can take some steps to help with coping with depression. Some general tips include:

  • Don’t be afraid to seek help.
  • Try to stay engaged with trusted sources of social support.
  • Try to get enough sleep each night.
  • Get regular exercise or engage in physical activity regularly, this may help with improving mood and overall health.
  • Engage in activities that provide enjoyment or meaning and purpose.
  • Try following a healthy, balanced diet.
  • If prescribed medication, take it as recommended.
  • Avoid alcohol or recreational drugs.

Sometimes pushing past the stigma is the best option for you or your family. Seeking help from a psychologist isn’t a sign of weakness but strength.

You may find that it provides you with the help you need to cope with depression and other issues associated with military life.

Mental health resources for military members and families

Support for service members and their families is available and within reach. If you or a family member are facing depression, the following supports may help:

  • VA Mental Health: If you’ve completed military service, this branch of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs helps connect veterans and their families to mental health services.
  • Psychological Health Center of Excellence (PHCoE): PHCoE offers psychological health research consultations for military services members and their families. It has a 24/7 toll-free number of 1-(866) 966-1020. Or you could connect with their live chat or use their email contact options.
  • Military OneSource: The Department of Defense provides this free resource for military service members and their families to help with different issues, including depression. It offers a 24/7 toll-free number of 1-(800) 342-9647.
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Military service members and their families face higher rates of depression than the general population.

Several stressors and stigma associated with mental health may contribute to the high rate of depression.

Symptoms and signs can be very similar to those found in the general population. Also, the same diagnostic criteria is used in the military to diagnose depression.

Several resources, both military based and civilian, can provide support to military service members and their families. You should never feel shame for reaching out for help if needed. You’re not alone.

If you’re experiencing suicidal thoughts, help is available

You can access free support right away with these resources:

  • 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline.Call the Lifeline at 988 for English or Spanish, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
  • The Crisis Text Line.Text HOME to the Crisis Text Line at 741741.
  • The Trevor Project. LGBTQIA+ and under 25 years old? Call 866-488-7386, text “START” to 678678, or chat online 24/7.
  • Veterans Crisis Line.Call 988 and press 1, text 838255, or chat online 24/7.
  • Deaf Crisis Line.Call 321-800-3323, text “HAND” to 839863, or visit their website.
  • Befrienders Worldwide.This international crisis helpline network can help you find a local helpline.
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