Navigating the mental health challenges of transitioning to civilian life

Updated onMay 16, 2022
4 minute read
Image by Joan Greenman from Pixabay.

Image by Joan Greenman from Pixabay.


No one enters the military on a whim, and you certainly don’t re-up just for kicks. No, you join the…

No one enters the military on a whim, and you certainly don’t re-up just for kicks. No, you join the military, and you stick with it for two primary reasons: You want to serve your country and you want to forge a better life for yourself and your family.

When it comes time to transition back into civilian life, pretty much all you can expect is the unexpected. This is especially true when it comes to your mental health. As a warrior, you’ve been trained to be tough. Nevertheless, going from soldier to civilian can test you in ways you never imagined.

Still, if there’s anything a warrior knows how to do, it’s how to execute a battle plan and fulfill a mission. In this case, the mission is to make the transition to civilian life as seamless as possible, to build a healthy, happy and fulfilling future outside of military fatigues.

Choosing the best home base

When you’re in the military, you quickly get accustomed to not only the nomadic life but also to going where you’re commanded to go. Once you become a civilian again, where you put down roots is going to be up to you and your family.

As it turns out, deciding where you want to live is probably going to be one of the first and most important decisions you can make.

Try to focus on locations that will help support your mental health. For instance, cities and towns that offer generous green spaces or easy access to lakes and beaches can be ideal for mental wellbeing because they give residents ample opportunities to spend time in nature.

Photo by Jessica Radanavong on Unsplash

Find your purpose

Perhaps one of the most difficult aspects of transitioning to civilian life is that, well, it can be a little dull in comparison to your old gig. When you’re a soldier, sailor, airman, Guardian, Coastie or Marine, kicking ass and taking names is a part of the job description. Your job title is freedom warrior. Your bosses are Uncle Sam and the Commander in Chief of the United States of America. Your clients are all the peace-loving peoples of the democratic world.

That’s pretty heady stuff, and suddenly going from that to PTA Mom or Dad with a desk job and a minivan can feel a bit milquetoast, at least for a while.

When you make the transition to civilian life, in other words, you need to be prepared for a bit of culture shock. You also need to hit the ground running when it comes to redefining your life’s purpose as a civilian. No, you might not be rescuing babies in war-torn villages, but you can still save the world, one minor miracle at a time.

For many former military, this begins by finding the right job. Even if it may not always be as exciting as some of your former duties, it can be just as meaningful. The key is to know how to adapt the skills you honed in your military life to civilian purposes. For example, you may be at a loss to explain how your past work in an infantry division will translate to an office job. You might be flummoxed as to how to explain in a short, civilian resume what your best and highest achievements while in the military really mean.

Fortunately, there are professionals who can help you make the job transition. These professionals can help you connect with employers who are committed to hiring veterans. They are also specially trained to understand how military skills can be transferred to the civilian world and can use this specialized knowledge to help you craft a job-getting resume and link up with the right job opportunities.

Finding the right civilian career path can help you find renewed purpose, meaning, and fulfillment in your new life, and this can help anchor you to the civilian world.

Photo by Corey Young on Unsplash

(Re)Build your support network

When you’re in the military, you always have a ready-made support network to rely on. It’s the person to the left and the right of you. When you’re a civilian, you often have to work a little harder to forge the connections so vital to your mental, spiritual, and emotional health.

The best place to begin is often in your very own house, with your very own family. Military families are all too accustomed to long and frequent periods of separation. Finding happiness, peace, stability and connection within your home should be a top priority if you’re looking to nurture your mental health.

Even little things, such as a bit of family dinner conversation at the end of each day can help you revive and strengthen your emotional bonds with the ones you love most.

It’s also critical that former military members have consistent access to both physical and mental healthcare. This is especially true for combat veterans, who may experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or other mental health challenges that can make the transition to civilian life more difficult. The Veterans Administration (VA), for instance, can connect you with mental healthcare professionals in your community, as well as telemedicine resources to ensure that you always have access to the psychological support you need as you transition into civilian life. This can include addiction counseling and psychiatric care delivered in person, online, or by phone.

The takeaway

The transition to civilian life may be difficult, but if there’s anything a military person knows, it’s how to rise to a challenge. The key lies in understanding what impacts the transition may have on your mental health and creating a battle plan for overcoming them, one step at a time. Building a happy, healthy, peaceful civilian life often begins with finding your home base, finding your purpose, finding your career, and finding your support network.