Surveying Veterans to Understand Mental Health Outcomes


The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has enlisted Altarum to design and carry out a longitudinal survey of thousands of Veterans to better understand how traumatic experiences affect their health over time, known as the Longitudinal Investigation of Gender, Health, and Trauma (LIGHT) Survey. Altarum recruited more than 3,500 Veterans to participate and has fielded six unique surveys with this cohort since 2018, with more surveys planned for 2024. An advantage of longitudinal surveys of the same cohort is greater insight into how life events affect participants over time.

These surveys seek to understand how exposure to trauma, violent crime, and other stressful life events predict mental health outcomes, such as depression, anxiety, and PTSD. The survey also examines how these outcomes may differ by Veteran characteristics, such as sex, race, and local crime rates. These results have produced congressional reports and peer-review research publications exploring the predictors of mental health in Veterans.


The study’s first survey was conducted in 2017, with six surveys conducted through 2023, and more planned for the future. Altarum’s survey scientists worked closely with the VA on the design of the survey, from choosing a sample that is statistically representative of the Veteran population to crafting the wording of the survey questions, to ensure the effort yields relevant and quality data. The sample includes oversamples of women Veterans, racial minorities, and those who live in higher crime zip codes. This oversample ensures high statistical precision for groups who have been historically overlooked in Veteran surveys.


Results from the LIGHT survey provide an enduring longitudinal dataset for researchers at the VA’s National Center for PTSD to use for their own research. This allows a wide range of researchers to make sure of the dataset and understand predictors of mental health outcomes among Veterans. In addition to this resource for VA researchers, Altarum has provided extensive analytical support for six years, including statistical mediation and moderation, structural equation modeling, latent growth curve analysis, and relative importance analysis. This analysis has generated several manuscripts, conference presentations, and peer-reviewed publications.

In an article published in The American Journal of Community Psychology, we found that Veterans with higher levels of social support and neighborhood cohesion were less likely to have symptoms of depression, but this protective effect of social relationships diminished with more exposure to traumatic life events. In another article published in PLOS ONE, we found that racial disparities for mental health outcomes could be accounted for by corresponding disparities in discrimination and income, and controlling for these factors greatly decreased the extent of mental health disparities.


Chris Duke
Senior Researcher