The COVID-19 pandemic has forced most of us into social isolation. But for veterans with mental health issues, staying at home runs counter to advice they've long received to get out and interact with the world.
Marine Corps veteran Ryan Domek-Hernandez of Raleigh struggles with mental health issues including PTSD, anxiety, depression, and substance abuse. He recently joined a group called Irreverent Warriors, which brings veterans together for outdoor hikes and hangouts.
He felt the difference immediately.
"They give us that unit feeling of brotherhood that we've been missing," Domek-Hernandez said. "Now, if something were to happen, I can call on 40 people and say, 'Hey, man, I'm going through this, what can we do?' Well, let's get up and let's go get coffee."
But thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, things are suddenly different. The Irreverent Warriors can't meet up for coffee. Or for family picnics, happy hours, or their signature hikes. Domek-Hernandez said he's worried about the toll that social distancing will take on him and his new friends.
"There's going to be a lot of people depressed, there's going to be a lot of people that need that social interaction in their life," he said, "and without them having that, it's going to go back to being alone, feeling alone. And that's not really a good place to be."
Hike leader Jeremy Walton said each day that veterans are forced to keep their distance, there's a greater chance they could backslide.
"The more we sit around and not talk and not interact with each other, the worse this becomes," Walton said. "This thing has put a big, big hole in a lot of our chests because we use this time to get together as a way to heal."
Experts confirm that loneliness can indeed exacerbate mental health issues including depression, anxiety, and post traumatic stress disorders.
"Being alone can make worse depression, can make worse anxiety disorders and post traumatic stress disorders," said David Benedek, chair of psychiatry at the Uniformed Services University and Associate Director of its Center for the Study of Traumatic Stress.
"So, being alone, in and of itself, can be a challenge," he said.
But Benedek added that being socially distant doesn't have to mean feeling lonely. He urged veterans struggling with the isolating effects of social distancing to routinely reach out to friends and professionals.
Mounting evidence suggests that using technology to replace in-person interaction can be just as effective.
"I've seen some new research that shows that online and virtual structured support engagements through online communities are also showing positive impacts in helping people feel more connected," said Terri Tanielian, a behavioral scientist and an expert on military and veteran health with the RAND Corporation. "So I think the evidence is growing. And it is showing that those virtual opportunities can be just as impactful and important."
For members of the Irreverent Warriors, though, a virtual hike just couldn't deliver what the real thing does. So, Walton said although they've canceled activities through mid-May, they're still coming up with creative ways of getting together in person.
"If you really want to get out of the house, we'll have a barbecue, we'll shoot guns out back," Walton said. "Come on over just will literally stagger you every 15 minutes, we will give you a fresh pair of clothes or you bring a fresh pair of clothes, and we will hang out."
The veterans said they don't want to take chances with their health and they'll be smart about limiting their contact.
But Walton said for them, getting together isn't a choice. It would be too unhealthy not to.
This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
Veterans who are struggling with isolation can reach the VA Veterans Crisis Line by calling 1-800-273-8255 and pressing 1 or by texting 838255.
Individuals facing mental health and substance abuse issues can call a hotline through the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. And The National Center for PTSD has information for managing stress during the COVID-19 outbreak.