On Hope and Veteran Mental Health

Hope. Those who have it, can’t conceive of a life without it; those who don’t have it can’t dream of a life with it ever again. Hope is critical to our psychological wellbeing. If we have no expectations of good things in the future, and more damaging, stop wanting good things in our lives, then despair sets in. I’ve seen this often in the veterans I work with as a clinical mental health counselor. If they walk in full of pain but are hopeful, then there is a good chance that they can get to a point where the pain is not impacting their life as much. If they are in pain but have no hope, we can get there too…but it’s going to take much longer.

Hopelessness and depression are linked. One can be depressed without hopelessness, and one can be hopeless without depression, but the two together can be devastating. And the combination of the two, and especially with hopelessness, means that the service member, veteran, or military family member are at a greater risk of suicide. One study looked at the impact of hopelessness as an exacerbating influence on other life stressors. The researchers found that negative life events, such as homelessness, job loss, and bereavement, significantly increased the risk of suicide for the individual who was hopeless as well.

Meaning and Purpose is Critical to Hope

A critical part of a fulfilled post military life is that a veteran has something to do that satisfies them. We’ve talked about meaning and purpose before, but research shows that former service embers who have a sense of purpose described being more hopeful about the future. On the other hand, veterans who feel like they’re a burden expressed more hopelessness. When a veteran is trapped by hopelessness…that there is nowhere else to go or nothing else to try…then they are well and truly trapped.

Just because we feel like there’s no hope, however, doesn’t mean that there isn’t any. This is the insidiousness of the betrayal of our own mind. When we get caught in a trap of hopelessness, it’s as if we’re at the bottom of a well. We don’t enjoy it (meaning), don’t feel like we can do anything about it (purpose), and can’t see anything but stone walls in front of us regardless of what direction we look. Except…if we look up, and there’s a way out. Someone who is hopeless will dismiss the idea that looking up is nothing but a feel-good cliche, and the person who is hopeful in their life recognizes that it’s the truth.

Hope That Pain Will End

One benefit of hope is that it will get us to a place of relief if we’re in pain. In this context, pain is any discomfort that we’re feeling as a result of injury, illness, or negative life events. Physical pain, emotional pain, psychological pain, spiritual pain. Pain without the hope of relief is suffering, and suffering is unbearable if we think it’s not ever going to end. The problem happens when we’re suffering and we can’t think of a time when we won’t be. And it becomes a recursive loop; again, as above, when it seems that when I try something, and it doesn’t work, and I try another thing, and that doesn’t work, then why try? And we fall back into the trap of pain that becomes suffering.

The thing is, I can be hopeful that someone will be free from pain. I often am. I see a veteran I’m working with who is suffering and hopeless, and I know they can get out of it…I’ve seen other veterans who feel exactly the same way regain their hopefulness and ease the pain. But I can’t be hopeful for someone. I can’t pour the hope I have for them into a cup and have them drink it. The hope must come from within the individual rather than from the outside…and so we’re back to someone who doesn’t have hope can’t conceive of ever having it again.

Hope That Good Will Come

Another benefit of hope is that it will not only bring us relief, but joy and satisfaction. Mental health and wellness is not just about repairing deficits, getting us back up to baseline when we’re down in that well. It’s also about getting us above zero, having a life worth living. We can be free of pain and still not be loving life. The absence of pain does not mean the presence of joy. Hope can help us understand that life is better today than it was before, and life tomorrow can be better than life is today.

The one thing that can develop hope is perseverance. That’s the one piece of advice that I can give: don’t give up. You hear it all the time, and it drives pessimists up the wall: buck up, little trooper. The sun will come out tomorrow. The little engine that could. Perseverance is sometimes equated with blind pie-in-the-sky optimism, but that’s not the case. It’s more about knowing that, when we’re in the middle of the long slog, that it will end. And it will, if we keep at it long enough.

Hope is critical to our wellbeing. It was like that when we were in the military…when we had that toxic leader or were stuck in some crappy field problem with mud up to our necks. There was hope that, eventually, this would end, and things would be better.

We can have the same thing in our post-military life. We just have to work to keep hope alive.


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Duane K. L. France is a combat veteran of both Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as a mental health counselor practicing in the state of Colorado. Do you want to join the conversation regarding veteran mental health? Share, like, and comment. Read Duane's previous posts and follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn. Keep the conversation about #veteranmentalhealth going.