Recently, a person I work with in therapy told me about a friend of his with two young children. The man, a former Marine who spent time in Afghanistan, is aggressive toward his wife and is now on the brink of divorce. The reason? Untreated posttraumatic stress.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that up to 20% of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan experience symptoms of posttraumatic stress (PTSD) in addition to a host of other veterans mental health issues. A recent study revealed that veterans commit suicide at the rate of 22 per day, and domestic violence in military families has tripled since 2006. The National Institute of Health considers posttraumatic stress to be an “epidemic” among veterans.
PTSD in Veterans is Complex
The term “PTSD” is often applied to individuals who have experienced any type of trauma and who have symptoms such as hypervigilance, intrusive thoughts, nightmares, changes in mood, and other related symptoms. These reactions can be felt by individuals after a variety of traumatic events, from car accidents to natural disasters to sexual assault.
But for war veterans, it’s more complicated. War veterans are traumatized in a number of ways (including, sometimes, sexual assault of servicewomen by their male colleagues) and are often traumatized repeatedly. They may have experienced multiple firefights, seen friends being killed, and had to make difficult decisions that resulted in the deaths of other human beings (sometimes the “enemy,” sometimes innocent bystanders, and sometimes their own friends and the soldiers they were responsible for leading).
Beyond Neurology: How Trauma Changes Us
When I go to workshops on trauma, I hear a lot of neuroscience lingo. I happen to like neuroscience, so I don’t mind that. But it’s not OK that it omits an important part of the picture; it leaves well-meaning clinicians with the impression that PTSD is simply a hiccup in the brain. It can lead us to believe that if we just disconnect the association between the trigger and the memory, then all will be well with the individual experiencing PTSD.
Every year, I get a flyer in the mail for a one-day “Rapid Trauma Resolution” training workshop. I glance at it, shake my head, and throw it in the trash. You can’t resolve complex trauma “rapidly,” and clinicians can’t acquire the skills needed to effectively treat trauma in a day.
Complex trauma, particularly the type experienced in a war zone, does more than just create flashbacks and nightmares; it changes a person. It’s akin to the death of a child. You can survive it, you can reduce the intensity of the pain, and in time you can learn to thrive and be happy again. But you will never be exactly the same person again.
Effective trauma treatment for military veterans and others who have served in war zones must address grief, guilt, self-worth, spiritual concerns, and anger, as well as PTSD symptoms. In addition, returning vets need help re-learning how to relate to their spouses and children.
How You Can Help
Whether we agree with the political decisions that lead our country in wars or not, the men and women in our armed forces, their parents, their partners, and their children make huge sacrifices to help ensure the security of our families. At the very least, we owe them compassion. You may not think that you can help, but here are three things you can do:
- Learn the art of compassionate listening. How many times a week do you use Google? Next time you’re searching for an interest of yours, take time to read a few articles on how to be a good listener. Simply pick up a few tips and practice. You’ll be amazed at the impact attentive, compassionate listening can have. Don’t judge. Don’t offer solutions. Just listen, be interested, and express empathy. “I’m so sorry you had to go through that. I can’t imagine what it’s like, but I’m here to listen any time you want to talk.” This simple phrase can work wonders. And it’s not just the vet that needs to talk; it’s the parents, the partner, and the children, too!
- Give a PTSD-affected veteran a phone number and offer to go with him or her. Look online for a therapist who is experienced in working with trauma, grief, and relationships/marriage. Write down the name and phone number, give it to the person who needs it, and offer to accompany him or her to the first appointment. And if you’ve been to therapy yourself, mentioning that could help. You can say something like: “I found this therapist online. She seems pretty nice and understands trauma. When I was depressed five years ago, I went to therapy and it really helped me. Maybe it can help you, too. If you want, I’ll be happy to go with you to the first appointment. Sometimes it helps to have a friend.”
- Donate your time or money. You may be thinking that those are some good tips, but you don’t know any military families. In that case, donate what you have the most of—time or money—to an organization that does outreach and provides counseling services to military families.
You might not be a therapist, but just by caring and taking some small action, you may very well be a lifeline for someone who needs it.
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