New Research: Volunteering Gives Purpose and Help to Veterans with PTS

February 27, 2017

Since the attacks of 9/11, our nation has been engaged in war for the longest period in our history. As a result, we have a growing number of men and women who have returned from the battlefield struggling with posttraumatic stress.

For many veterans the transition from the battlefield to the home front proves to be very difficult. They struggle with nightmares, sleep disturbances, anger, fear, and sadness over the losses they have suffered. They may also struggle with significant battlefield injuries. They are at times alienated from family and friends by the way they respond to the vets. They struggle with shame and guilt because they lived and their friends did not.

They come home to a society that expects them to be as normal as when they left. If they are separated from their unit, they can find themselves isolated with no one in whom to confide. Frequently I see posts on the Internet asking me to repost a suicide hot line or asking me to do 22 pushups for 22 days to raise awareness of the average of 22 veterans who chose to end their lives every day. I did both.

What can be done to help these men and women who have given much so that we can breathe freely? Researchers have shown that putting veterans back into service may offer real help. A new study recently published by researchers at St Louis University has shown that Veterans who struggle with posttraumatic stress find help when they are involved in community service programs.[i] The Mission Continues is a non-profit organization that connects veterans with service missions in their communities. These missions go beyond volunteering on a casual basis; they involve 20 hours per week for 6 months (with a stipend).

The outcomes from the study were encouraging. Before beginning their volunteer mission, 50% of the 348 veterans reported symptoms of posttraumatic stress and 23% reported symptoms of depression. After their term of service, those reporting PTS dropped to 43%, and those with symptoms of depression dropped to 15%.

When asked why volunteering would help struggling veterans, Dr. Monica Matthieu stated that the mechanism of action remained a question. “One of our theories has to do with behavioral activation and the purpose surrounding the activity…when we get up and move and that movement is geared toward a purpose of helping others, it is like stepping outside our own lives to focus on the needs of others.”[ii]

So, the main elements were physical activity and purpose aimed at helping others. The Bible speaks to these ideas. For years I have been telling people struggling with depression that they can find help in changing their purpose. Paul told us that our purpose as Christians was to glorify God with our lives. As he told the believers at Corinth, “Therefore also we have as our ambition…to be pleasing to Him”(2 Corinthians 5:9). The sentence that I encourage strugglers to learn is “I want to glorify God with my life more than I want to breathe.” Glorifying God gives us purpose when all else fails us.

That purpose needs to be grounded in loving God “with all our heart soul and mind” and then loving our neighbor as ourselves (Matthew 22:37-39). That purpose will drive the believer to live by the imperatives of Scripture: “He who loves me will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). Finally, that purpose must lead us to serve others. In John 13 we see Jesus washing the dirty feet of his disciples and then telling them that they should do the same for each other.

Organizations that help veterans struggling with PTS by placing them in structured volunteer service positions are following a biblical model. And, they should be commended. Giving servicemen and women something to do with a purpose to help others and supporting them while they do it is a good work.

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[i] Monica M. Matthieu, Karen A. Lawrence, Emma Robertson-Blackmore. The impact of a civic service program on biopsychosocial outcomes of post 9/11 U.S. military veteransPsychiatry Research, 2017; 248: 111 DOI: 10.1016/j.psychres.2016.12.028

[ii] Saint Louis University Medical Center. “Volunteering eases veterans’ transition to civilian life.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 2 February 2017. <>.

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