Navy veteran Bill Carruthers struggled for years with mental illness and addiction before deciding his life would no longer be defined by drugs. “Before my recovery, I was all of those horrible, scary things that you hear about regarding mental illness and addiction,” he says. “I believed that’s who I was.”

Carruthers turned to Narcotics Anonymous. “I thought recovery was me not going backwards,” he says. “I didn’t have a vision for going forward. When I went to NA meetings, I felt incomplete. I didn’t like saying over and over, ‘My name is Bill and I’m an addict.’ I thought if I tell myself that, I will believe it."

It was not until Carruthers told his story to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) and got involved with their peer-to-peer program that he had an awakening. “I had an epiphany,” he says. “There wasn’t something wrong with me morally. I used to think I was a bad person because I smoked dope. In peer-to-peer, I realized I had a disease.” Part of his recovery, he says, was committing his life to helping other veterans with mental health problems.

Related: Could You Be Depressed and Not Know It?

The war at home

The wounds of war often go deeper than what you can see. From depression and brain injury to substance abuse problems, veterans may come home different people than when they left. Some are depressed as a result of disfiguring or disabling injuries. And 30 percent of U.S. military veterans experience post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD) — a rate four times higher than that of the general population, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. PTSD often involves emotional numbness, nightmares, flashbacks and severe emotional distress when something triggers a memory of battle or other terrors.

If you think your veteran is having more than the usual difficulty adjusting to life at home, here’s what you can do.

Learn the signs of a mental health problem. For many troubled veterans and indeed, many people trying to find their way through the morass of mental illness, recognizing there’s a problem may be the biggest challenge, Carruthers says. Identifying the warning signs can help you figure out if your loved one needs professional help.

According to NAMI, these symptoms may suggest your vet is depressed, suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome or another mental disorder:

  • Excessive worrying or fear
  • Feeling chronically sad or low
  • Confused thinking or problems concentrating and learning
  • Extreme mood changes, including uncontrollable “highs” or “lows”
  • Prolonged or strong feelings of irritability or anger
  • Avoiding friends and social activities
  • Difficulties understanding or relating to other people
  • Changes in sleeping habits or feeling chronically tired and apathetic
  • Changes in eating habits such as increased hunger or lack of appetite
  • Changes in sex drive
  • Having delusions or hallucinations, in which your veteran experiences and senses things that don't exist
  • Inability to perceive changes in one’s own feelings, behavior or personality (”lack of insight”)
  • Abuse of substances like alcohol or drugs
  • Multiple physical ailments without obvious causes (such as headaches, stomachaches, vague and ongoing “aches and pains”)
  • Talking about suicide
  • Inability to carry out daily activities or handle daily problems and stress

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Find a doctor and/or counselor. Medical professionals need to evaluate a patient and make a diagnosis. Health care providers can then develop a treatment plan. Options include medication, therapy and lifestyle changes, such as practicing relaxation techniques.

“As a first step, Wwe often suggest contacting your family doctor or regional mental health office,” says Marjie Giuliano, who runs the NAMI support group in Charlottesville, Virginia. “Many have walk-in clinics.”

Contact your vet's health insurer, primary care doctor or state/country mental health authority for more resources. You can call the NAMI HelpLine toll-free at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264) to find out what services are available in your community. Other organizations and agencies offering help include the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, which provides veterans one-on-one counseling, referrals to mental health programs and many other services; the Wounded Warrior Project, which supports injured veterans; the National Center for PTSD; the Veterans Administration and MyHealtheVet, which is part of the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs.

If you or someone you know is despondent and needs immediate help, call 911 and the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 and press "1" for a confidential veterans chat.

Get the whole family involved. Regional NAMI groups offer support services for families. “Usually they come to us after their loved one has been diagnosed,” Giuliano says. “Sometimes it’s not easy to get someone to go for help. That’s often the problem.”

A NAMI success story, Carruthers is serving on the board of directors for NAMI Georgia, his home state. He’s also director of the NAMI Peer-to-Peer program at Savannah Counseling Services. “Today, I work with people who have educated and invested in me. They are not afraid of me. My relationships propel me forward.… At the counseling center, we just call that recovery.”

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Steve Evans, MA, is an award-winning journalist with more than 20 years experience in daily news, investigative, health and business journalism. Among other jobs, he has served as managing editor of the Central Virginia Newspaper Group, as a senior writer for SNL Financial and as a staff writer for The Progress Index and the Richmond Times-Dispatch.