ASU alumni study impact of pandemic on veterans’ mental health


September 23, 2021

Understanding how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected the mental health of military veterans, who are at increased risk of poor mental health compared to civilians, is a priority for two recent graduates of Arizona State’s doctoral program in clinical psychology. University.

Brandon Nichter is a clinical psychologist with the US Department of Defense. Melanie Hill holds a visiting scholar position in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego, as does Nichter. Both are part of a research team using the National Veteran Health and Resilience Study, or NHRVS, to examine the impact of the pandemic on the mental health of veterans.

ASU alumni Brandon Nichter (left) and Melanie Hill (right), recent graduates of the doctoral program in clinical psychology, are now struggling to understand how the pandemic has affected the mental health of military veterans.
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The NHRVS interviewed about 3,000 veterans about their mental health shortly before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and a year later, about 10 months after the onset of the current pandemic. The study used a nationally representative sample of veterans, meaning the results can be applied to the entire U.S. veteran population.

Hill was recently the lead author of a study using the NHRVS that looked at how the rates of symptoms of depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder changed among veterans during the pandemic. This job has been published in Psychological Medicine.

“We wanted to understand how the stressful conditions associated with the pandemic, ranging from concerns about contracting with COVID-19 and the impacts of mitigation measures such as lockdowns, can affect veterans,” Hill said.

Nichter was the principal author of another to study recently published in JAMA Psychiatry. This work examined how the pandemic impacted suicidal behavior among veterans.

“Before the pandemic, military veterans were 50% more likely to kill themselves than civilians. The objective of our study was to examine whether factors related to the pandemic such as financial hardship, increasing loneliness and infection with COVID-19 were associated with higher rates of suicidal behavior, ”said Nichter.

General anxiety increased among middle-aged veterans during the pandemic

The NHRVS interviewed veterans in November 2019, four months before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and again a year later in November 2020, about 10 months after the start of the pandemic. Participants were asked to report symptoms of anxiety, depression and PTSD.

There has been no change in symptoms of depression or PTSD, but there has been an increase in the number of veterans showing symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder. This change was prompted by the growing anxiety of middle-aged veterans aged 45 to 64.

“It’s possible that middle-aged veterans have experienced increased anxiety because the pandemic has been a stressful time to balance competing demands,” Hill said. “This group could take care of older children and parents while working and dealing with the uncertainty of employment, distance learning for children and worrying about the infection of older parents. ”

Suicidal ideation among veterans decreased during pandemic

The NHRVS also asked participating veterans about the incidences of suicidal thoughts – or how many times they have had suicidal thoughts in the past year.

The prevalence of suicidal ideation in the overall veteran population declined by almost 30% during the pandemic from pre-pandemic levels. But 2.6% of study participants said they developed new suicidal thoughts during the pandemic.

“Using population benchmarks, our results suggest that about half a million new veterans may have considered suicide during the pandemic,” Nichter said.

The most significant risk factors for recent onset suicidal ideation included poor social support and pre-pandemic mental health issues.

“Given the increased stressors associated with the pandemic, we expected that this stress may have contributed to higher rates of suicidal thoughts among veterans. However, our results showed a decrease in the prevalence of suicidal ideation in the overall veteran population, which is consistent with CDC data which found that the rate of suicide deaths among Americans has declined. by 5.6% in the first year of the pandemic, ”said Nichter.

Veterans who had been ill with COVID-19 were 2.5 times more likely to report another onset of suicidal ideation. When the research team took into account previous mental health issues and other factors of suicidal behavior, COVID-19 disease has always remained a risk factor for new cases of suicidal ideation.

“It’s important to understand how different populations respond to the pandemic, and our studies are the first, to my knowledge, to examine trends in mental health symptoms in a nationally representative sample of U.S. veterans during the pandemic. This work highlights the need for further research on the long-term impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on mental health, ”Hill said.

Trained by ASU

At ASU, Nichter received his doctorate in clinical psychology under the mentorship of Nancy Gonzales, who was then professor of psychology at the Foundation and is now executive vice-president and rector of the university. Nichter said he chose Gonzales as his doctoral advisor because of his nationally recognized expertise in understanding the developmental processes that expose Latino and other minority youth to mental health and substance abuse issues.

“The ASU Clinical Sciences program has had a big impact on my current situation. My involvement with ASU has helped me better understand the pathways and processes that lead at-risk populations like ex-combatants to develop mental health problems, ”he said.

Hill worked under the mentorship of Madeline Meier, associate professor of psychology, and has conducted research on how the regulation of stress and emotions affects substance use and mental health.

“I received a solid foundation in clinical science research at ASU and I am using this foundation in my current postdoctoral fellowship. Right now I’m studying the impact of mental health issues and substance use, with a focus on cannabis use and PTSD among veterans, ”Hill said.

For struggling veterans, the Veterans Crisis Line offers free, confidential 24/7 support at 1-800-273-8255 (press 1) or by text message 838255. For anyone else in difficulty, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline offers free, confidential 24/7 support, also at 1-800-273-8255.


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