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James Gresak, who served in the Navy during World War II, poses for a portrait after receiving his COVID-19 vaccine in Arlington, Texas, March 30, 2021. A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association on April 8, 2021, found that even before COVID vaccines were widely available in the U.S., many veterans said their psychological outlook on life had improved during the pandemic.
James Gresak, who served in the Navy during World War II, poses for a portrait after receiving his COVID-19 vaccine in Arlington, Texas, March 30, 2021. A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association on April 8, 2021, found that even before COVID vaccines were widely available in the U.S., many veterans said their psychological outlook on life had improved during the pandemic. (William Redding/U.S. Marine Corps )

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A surprising number of U.S. military veterans say they feel more positive about life, relationships and themselves since the coronavirus pandemic began, bucking predictions of a dire mental health crisis caused by the outbreak, a study published Thursday said.

“People talked, when the pandemic was unfolding, that we were going to see an incredible wave of mental illness, but the research hasn’t captured that,” one of the study’s authors, Dr. Robert Pietrzak, told Stars and Stripes. He heads the Translational Psychiatric Epidemiology Laboratory of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ National Center for PTSD.

More than 3,000 veterans were surveyed between November 2019 and March 2020 — before COVID-19 had been declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization — and again in November and December 2020 when the pandemic was in full swing. Of those, 43% said they had experienced positive psychological changes despite lockdowns, isolation, economic hardship and illness.

The most notable change was a greater appreciation for life, followed by closer personal relationships and an enhanced sense of personal strength, the study found.

Positive change was even greater among the 13% of veterans who said they had virus-related post-traumatic stress disorder, according to the study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Of those, 70% reported having a more positive outlook during the pandemic.

The researchers were “startled that this is happening,” said Pietrzak, an associate professor of psychiatry and public health at Yale University.

“Every morning, everything is negative about the pandemic. It’s all about depression, insomnia, substance abuse. But we also have positive things occurring,” he said.

All the veterans who took part in the survey lived in their own homes. Most were men.

Having had COVID-19 did not influence whether they were able to move on from the trauma of the pandemic to post-traumatic growth.

While trauma can increase the risk of mental disorders such as PTSD, Pietrzak said, it can also spur beneficial changes.

“By no means are we trying to put out the message that people should get infected and COVID is a good thing, and we don’t want to minimize anything — there are subsets of people who are suffering quite a bit,” he said.

“But we are seeing both the negative and the positive, and the positive so far outweighs the negative.”

Post-traumatic growth occurs naturally and is often seen in people with PTSD symptoms because “you need a wound to heal,” Pietrzak said.

“Post-traumatic growth is stimulated by reflective processing about a traumatic event, and sometimes you need to be sufficiently shaken by an experience and experience symptoms of PTSD to begin to process it at a deeper level.”

A follow-up survey is planned for 2022, he said, when the pandemic is “hopefully over.”

zeitvogel.karin@stripes.com Twitter: @StripesZeit

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