Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in the Military

07/18/2016   Dr. SooMi Lee-Samuel, MD, MA Medical Director, Timberline Knolls Residential Treatment Center
 

The world has long known the casualties of war. None of them are good. Military research, in the post-Vietnam era, led to the legitimizing of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a genuine disorder. Prior to that time, those extremely traumatized by combat experience were simply referred to as war weary or battle fatigued; these inadequate labels did sufferers a profound disservice. Essentially, until an addiction or disorder is officially recognized, treatment will not be forthcoming.

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PTSD is a severe anxiety disorder that can develop after exposure to any event that results in psychological trauma. The operative word in this definition is “psychological.” The truth is that while physical trauma usually resolves itself, for many, the mental and emotional pain associated with trauma is relentless and ultimately destructive.

When an individual suffers from PTSD, their world view frequently alters from positive to negative. The belief that people cannot be trusted can result in broken relationships. The person feels emotionally numb, hopeless and rarely enjoys pleasurable activities. Given time, it can destroy their lives as well as the lives of family members.

PTSD Symptoms:

Onset of symptoms usually occurs one to three months after experiencing a traumatic event, such as combat violence. For PTSD to be diagnosed, three types of symptoms must have occurred within the span of a month. These include:

Re-experiencing Symptoms:

These are often characterized by flashbacks, nightmares and frightening thoughts. Individuals are plagued by trauma-related memories which often surface at random times. A person may find themselves reliving a traumatic event due to a trigger in the environment such as a certain smell or sound.

Avoidance Symptoms:

With avoidance, the person avoids thinking about or speaking of the event. This often includes staying away from places, losing interest in enjoyable activities, and feeling guilt, numbness or depression.

Hyper-arousal Symptoms:

The person exists in a state of tension and agitation, always alert for danger. Sudden anger and irritability becomes the norm. The person frightens easily and is often plagued with insomnia. Engaging in self-destructive behavior such as consuming too much alcohol, grows in frequency.

PTSD Within the Military:

Although women in the general population are twice as likely to suffer from PTSD than men, combat involvement tends to level the playing field. Soldiers, regardless of gender, share many of the same character traits such as strength, integrity, bravery and patriotism, to name only a few. But at the end of the day, all soldiers are human beings with individual thoughts, feelings and emotions. Modern warfare, though highly sophisticated, is defined by death and destruction. Soldiers see and experience things that are simply horrifying.

It is no wonder that even the most experienced of soldiers often return home highly traumatized. Regrettably, PTSD among veterans is not exclusively the result of combat. Sexual harassment and assault in the military is experienced by both men and women.

Regardless of causation, PTSD, depression and anxiety are the most common mental health problems faced by returning troops.

Approximately 11 to 20% of veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars (Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom) have been diagnosed with PTSD.

A full 30 percent of soldiers develop mental problems within 3 to 4 months after returning home. Also, reports show that 55% of women and 38% of men report being the victim of sexual harassment while serving in the military. Due to the fact that there are more men than women in the military, more than half of all veterans experiencing military sexual trauma (MST) are men.

Although psychiatric issues are rampant, seeking help is more the exception than the rule. This is due to the fact that in the military, psychiatric issues are perceived of differently than physical problems. Whereas medical attention is immediately sought for a broken bone, it is not the same for a broken spirit. Those with PTSD often suffer in silence, believing that if counseling is requested, they will be seen as weak, their leaders will treat them differently and fellow troops will lose confidence in them. PTSD often leads to debilitating depression, alcohol addiction and drug abuse. Far too often it results in suicide.

  • An estimated 20% of returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans turn to heavy
    drinking or drugs once they return to the US.
  • The most recent statistic reflecting suicide rates is from 2010. At that time, an average of 22 veterans committed suicide every day. The group with the highest number of suicides was men ages 50 to 59. It is thought that the rate of suicide in this population has grown since that year.

Help is Available

Just as the shame associated with seeking help must be eradicated, so must the overriding perception that those with PTSD must suffer endlessly and never return to a normal productive life. This is simply not the case. Many therapeutic approaches have been successfully utilized in treating this disorder. These include Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, Somatic Experiencing, Trauma Sensitive Yoga, Group Therapy, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Sensory Motor work.

PTSD is not a disease, it is a disorder—a psychiatric issue that can be successfully treated. If you, or someone you love, are displaying symptoms of PTSD for any reason, please do not suffer in silence. Get the help you need and deserve.
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