Veterans’ and Wounded Warriors’ Mental Health

Note: In 2011, AOTA identified veterans' and wounded warriors' mental health as an emerging niche in occupational therapy. It has since become more mainstream, so newer content appears elsewhere on this site. This page has been retained for historical information. Learn more about the 2011 Emerging Niche series here.

Veterans Mental HealthWhy emerging? The number one cause of hospitalization for U.S. military men and the second highest cause of hospitalization for women military personnel is mental health problems, according to a 2010 Pentagon report, and the incidence of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) diagnoses increased nearly six fold from 2003 to 2008.1 The Department of Defense responded by opening the Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury (DCoE) in 2007 for veterans and their families, creating new screening procedures and other initiatives to identify mental health problems before shipping soldiers out.2 But some say the government is not doing enough to prevent and protect veterans from mental health problems as soldier suicides continue and increase.3

Get Involved! When Carol Haertlein Sells, PhD, OTR, FAOTA, joined the army 2 years ago, she'd had firsthand experience with veterans and soldiers at her university and in her own family returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. "My son was deployed two times to Iraq and I was concerned about the impact on his well-being upon return from deployment," she says. "I participated in military family support groups and it was my first introduction to the extreme stress both families and vets experience—I kept thinking that there was a role for occupational therapy to support them."

For the next 2 years, Haertlein Sells was a major at the Brooke Army Medical Center at Fort Sam Houston, and she says everything she had thought about the role of occupational therapy for young veterans was confirmed when she saw the stress they experienced, especially when they returned from deployment. "There are huge adjustments and community reintegration issues, and although the behavioral health community can address some of these, the every day living occupation-based focus is neglected," she says. Haertlein Sells noticed that many veterans don't want to talk about their mental health problems and issues, but they are willing to participate in activities that address the issues. "There will be young adults returning to our communities with pressing mental health needs for many years to come," she says. "The military is doing a better job of building resilience in young service members, but there will be needs in the community that the Department of Veterans Affairs will not be able to handle."

Haertlein Sells suggests that practitioners interested in working in this area visit the Veterans Affairs Web site to learn about the current programs and needs, meet with local veterans groups, and attend Memorial Day and other military-focused events. "Veterans are everywhere," she says. "They are our neighbors, parents of our students, at our churches, and in our schools and businesses, and I believe that those who serve our country in the military are among the best people I have ever known. I do not believe that there is a group more worthy of our attention and concern as occupational therapy practitioners."


  1. Keyes, C. (2010, December 9). Report: Growing mental health problems in military. Retrieved May 12, 2011, from

  2. Defense Centers of Excellence. (2011). About DCoE. Retrieved May 12, 2011, from

  3. McKinley, J. C. (2010, October 10). Despite army's prevention efforts, suicides continue. Retrieved May 12, 2011, from