Otago Research Unravels Insights into Military Veterans’ Health

New Zealand military veterans experience the same level of anxiety and depression as the general population, but have more problems with pain and mobility, new research shows.

University of Otago Associate Professor in Occupational and Environmental Medicine David McBride led a study which aimed to identify factors associated with better or poorer self-reported health status in military veterans.

More than 1700 veterans completed a survey which asked them to grade five dimensions (mobility, self-care, usual activities, pain or discomfort, and anxiety and depression) based on their severity (no, slight, moderate, severe or extreme problems).

They were also asked to rate their health from 0 (the worst) to 100 (the best).

Results show that, compared to the general population, a significantly higher proportion of veterans reported any problems rather than no problems on four of the five dimensions (mobility, self-care, carrying out usual activities, and pain or discomfort) however there was no difference in anxiety or depression.

Associate Professor McBride was surprised by the results.

“The five dimensions results were worrying in that veterans had problems with four out of the five,” he says.

Age, length of service, deployment, psychological flexibility and better sleep quality were associated with higher health scores (closer to 100) and distress with lower scores (closer to 0).

“In general, the veterans also had high levels of psychological distress and post-traumatic stress disorder, both associated with poor heath,” he says.

“Psychological flexibility – that ability to accept psychological problems and deal with them – and good sleep were associated with good health.”

The research was conducted to review veteran transition – how a veteran moves through a career with frequent changes and often being deployed to a war zone, zone of conflict or a disaster.

“They develop a strong military identity then lose that when they leave,” Associate Professor McBride says.

“One of the problems then is they may have unrecognised post-traumatic stress injury, especially if they leave early, which they try to deal with themselves because they are stoic and think seeking help is a sign of weakness,” he says.

Veterans often think health support workers do not understand them, so do not bother going.

“We were, therefore, interested in what promoted wellbeing in this study and, on the other hand, what was associated with poor health.”

Associate Professor McBride is the director of the University’s Health of Veterans, Serving Personnel and Their Families research theme.

The theme is dedicated to producing high-quality, interdisciplinary research focused on the health status and needs of veterans, serving personnel and their families.

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