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You’ve seen him in movies on TV; the veteran who returns home a loose cannon, unpredictable and violent. You’ve read about him in the news; the soldier who goes berserk and kills 16 innocent civilians or mows down his comrades. And now you’re worried he (or she) might show up at your office for the next job interview.

Hidden Fears of Hidden Wounds

An estimated 17 percent of Iraqi and Afghanistan war veterans come home with post-traumatic stress disorder. Eight out of every 100 civilians also suffer from it. So we can look at the glass as half-empty or half full; the vast majority of returning soldiers don’t have PTSD, or combat veterans are twice as likely to have it in comparison to non-military peers.

The unemployment rates for veterans suggest that many hiring managers prefer to err on the side of caution. Their average jobless rate in 2010 was 11.5 percent compared with 9.4 percent for nonveterans. Younger veterans fared even worse — 20.9 percent compared with 17.3 percent for nonveterans.

In some respects, employers feel caught between a rock and a hard place when it comes to hiring returning combat veterans. On the one hand, most of us feel grateful to our brave soldiers, who have been on the front lines fighting to preserving our freedom. In addition to the patriotism than can lead employers to favor hiring veterans, we also recognize the character traits military service builds that can make them excellent employees.

On the other hand, this same sense of gratitude and duty can work against our returning veterans by making employers reluctant to seek out accurate information; after all, who wants to question the mental health of our military? All too often, this means ignoring the elephant that’s already in the room. In an anonymous June 2010 poll by the Society for Human Resource Management, more than half (53%) of responding HR professionals said they didn’t know if workers with PTSD are more likely to commit violence in the workplace. And a 2011 survey of 831 hiring managers by the Apollo Research Institute found that 39 percent were “less favorable” toward hiring military personnel when considering war-related psychological disorders

Let’s be honest; with weekly news stories about employees “going postal,” is a hiring manager who’s uncertain about the link between PTSD and violence going to take that chance?

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Violence

First of all, the majority of people who experience a traumatic event don’t develop ongoing psychiatric problems. Those who do experience symptoms do so to varying degrees. These symptoms include severe anxiety, sleeplessness, nightmares, social isolation, emotional numbness, irritability and a feeling of being on guard. A key symptom: The individual relives a traumatic event when confronted with reminders or thinks about it when trying to do something else.

Among those who do experience post-traumatic stress disorder, the link between is unclear and indirect. For instance, a new study in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology found a correlation between some of the untreated symptoms of PTSD and criminal misbehavior. Interestingly, though, it wasn’t the PTSD diagnosis per se that was related to criminal arrests but rather PTSD sufferers who had a high degree of unaddressed anger and irritability. Similarly, there are plenty of pre-existing factors that can muddy the waters when trying to clarify the relationship between PTSD and violence; growing up in a violent home and a prior history of substance abuse increases the risk of aggression in veterans and civilians alike.

In reality, violence is uncommon among people with mental illness, and the rare instances that do occur are most often associated with other factors, such as active substance abuse or refusing to take medications. There are also protective factors that significantly decrease the likelihood of violence, such as effective mental health treatment, stable employment, and a strong support system.

The Bottom Line

Most veterans don’t develop PTSD, and the minority who do have the same kinds of reactions of people exposed to a hurricane or a car accident. Furthermore, it is treatable and rarely leads to violence. Employers who let their fears guide their hiring decisions are missing out on a wealth of talent (and may act counter to the law, a topic for another article). The best gift we can give our returning heroes is to hire those who are qualified for the job (not out of pity or indebtedness), assume they are mentally healthy (unless we are told or have evidence that suggests otherwise), and, if problems arise, focus on the behavior at issue rather than a diagnosis.

4 Responses to We Love Our Veterans! (But We’re Afraid to Hire Them)

  • The U.S. government has long recognized the need to provide disability compensation to veterans for health problems associated with military service. Post-traumatic stress disorder is a common type of health problem for which veterans request disability compensation.

  • Rose S, Bisson J, Churchill R, Wessely S. Psychological debriefing for preventing post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2002 (2):CD000560.

  • Roughly 30 percent of Vietnam veterans developed PTSD. The disorder also has been detected in as many as 10% of Gulf War (Desert Storm) veterans, about 6% to 11% of veterans of the Afghanistan war, and about 12% to 20% of veterans of the Iraq war.

  • When in danger, it’s natural to feel afraid. This fear triggers many split-second changes in the body to prepare to defend against the danger or to avoid it. This “fight-or-flight” response is a healthy reaction meant to protect a person from harm. But in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), this reaction is changed or damaged. People who have PTSD may feel stressed or frightened even when they’re no longer in danger.

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