Veterans with PTSD at Increased Risk for Criminal Misconduct

War veterans face a host of challenges when they return from combat. Just trying to reacclimate to the civilian world can be hard enough. Add to that an insecure economic environment and physical disabilities, and it can be even more difficult. For veterans with posttraumatic stress (PTSD) or traumatic brain injuries (TBIs), issues such as emotional instability and impulsivity can make reentry into the community an extremely arduous task. Despite the best efforts of the Veterans Administration, many veterans wind up in legal trouble after their return from war. In fact, statistics suggest that nearly 10% of war veterans have some sort of criminal history.

Eric B. Elbogen of the Department of Psychiatry at the University of North Carolina wanted to determine if our most recent veterans—those returning from war in Iraq and Afghanistan—also were at increased risk for criminal activity. In a recent study, Elbogen evaluated data from more than 1,300 recent war veterans and measured levels of criminal involvement, family history, substance use, anger, and aggression. He also looked at gender, age, and presence of PTSD or TBI. He discovered that almost 10% of the veterans sampled had been arrested at least once after they came home. Although many of the violations were not related to violent behavior, those that were involved veterans with PTSD. The younger male veterans were more likely to be arrested than female or older veterans. Also, those with a criminal history, drug or alcohol use, and high levels of anger resulting from PTSD were at increased risk for arrest. Elbogen found no link between TBI and arrest, even if the veterans with TBI had high levels of aggressive behavior.

The results of this study have important clinical implications. “The findings underscore the need for clinicians to recognize that many veterans seeking treatment, particularly those with PTSD, anger, and irritability, are at higher risk for arrest,” Elbogen said. Also, veterans who have a history of family violence, drug and alcohol misuse, or other contributing factors should be targeted for interventions that could help them avoid future problems with the legal system.

Elbogen, E. B., Johnson, S. C., Newton, V. M., Straits-Troster, K., Vasterling, J. J., Wagner, H. R., Beckham, J. C. (2012). Criminal justice involvement, trauma, and negative affect in Iraq and Afghanistan war era veterans. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0029967

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The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • wayne


    October 23rd, 2012 at 5:27 PM

    there r a lot of ppl out there that r angry and have issues.yet theey continue to be do putting others at risk.whether they r vets or not they need to be treated not just for them but for others safety too.

  • don t

    don t

    October 23rd, 2012 at 5:30 PM

    You want to know the bad thing about all of this? The fact that many times vets with PTSD are rarely diagnosed early. many times this goes on for years and years before they even have any notion of what is going on and by them their lives have been ruined because of the decisions and bad behaviors that they have already exhibited.

  • Abbie


    October 24th, 2012 at 4:02 AM

    There are so many other factors at play though that can’t be overlooked.

    What about the fact that a high number of vets are homeless and this population alone is at risk for arrest and violent behavior? This has to be addressed.

    Also the fact that a lot of these veterans are not getting the besic primary medical care that they may need due to lack of money or availability of services, this is also an issue of concern

  • sally


    October 24th, 2012 at 9:57 AM

    returning from the war usually means there is a heavy load of unpleasant memories and thoughts.Coupled with depression,it can really push a person towards undesirable behavior and for what we know of vets,they can pack quite a punch,thereby spiking the violent incidents they are involved in.

  • Mic


    October 24th, 2012 at 11:40 AM

    Can you even blame them? I know that these are adults that we are talking about, but when you look hard at the things that they have seen and the experiences that they have had, in some ways it does kind of become understandable to see how they have ended up living their lives. That does not excuse those poor choices nor does that mean that they should not have to be punished. But these are people who also deserve to be helped too. We don’t just throw people away based on their poor decisin making, or at least I don’t like to think that we are that disaposable. But maybe to some people we are. I don’t know, I just think that after all many of them have sacrificed for us that we owe them at least a little better than that.

  • Jerry


    October 24th, 2012 at 5:14 PM

    Well, you can;t stop the fact that there are gonna be some people who get hurt with PTSD. What you can stop though is the feeling that these men and women feel like no one is listening or is doing anthing to help them. they need to know that we care about them and support them, and that is when the real violence can end.

  • Kathryn


    October 25th, 2012 at 4:11 AM

    But there is nothing that implies that this “criminal misconduct” will necessarily be violent behavior, right? this could just be acting out in ways that do not always fit the normal behavior rules, but it does not mean that it will always be violent in nature.



    October 25th, 2012 at 8:11 AM

    Trauma and stress can really make a person act out in ways that he or she may find unbelievable at other times. A little but of stress can make me shout and curse so I’m not surprised at this. The problem is not the vets it is their condition and that certainly needs attention and treatment.

  • Brenda


    October 26th, 2012 at 11:22 AM

    One big missing link as I see it is the family. I have seen many turn away from their returning veteran family and friends when they come home because they are ashamed of the ensuing behavior or for some reason they can’t handle this themselves. This is the very time that they need us the most yet it is the time when so many of us wish to loom away and try not to be a part of it.

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