As the echoes of war fade, a different kind of battle wages on for many courageous veterans who return home. An estimated 6% of US adults, or 6 out every 100 people, will be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), at some point in their lifetime. In veterans, it increases to 7 out of 100 (or 7%). While PTSD can be a debilitating disorder, with the right support and resources, veterans and their families can successfully learn to cope and thrive.
What is PTSD and Why is it More Prominent in the Veteran Population?
Post-traumatic stress disorder is a mental health diagnosis that is often triggered by a terrifying event–either by experiencing it firsthand or witnessing it. While most people who go through traumatic events usually recover with good self-care and coping skills, if symptoms get worse, last for extended periods of time, and interfere with day-to-day functioning, it may be PTSD related.
When you serve in the military, you may be exposed to more traumatic events and at a higher frequency than civilians are. Since the disorder is triggered by trauma, the frequency and the severity of events servicemembers experience oftentimes is the major reason why it is more prevalent in this population than the general public.
PTSD is recognized as one of the most common disabilities in veterans. Because of this, it’s important to understand how it impacts them as a whole, the steps they can take to help their symptoms and what family members and friends can do to support them.
Understanding PTSD in Veterans
While there has been a substantial amount of research done over the last decade or two regarding the prevalence of PTSD in military veterans, the results of these studies have varied quite a lot. PTSD was only made a mental health diagnosis in 1980, it’s still relatively new and needs to be understood.
In a recent meta-analysis of thirty-two scientific articles, researchers found the estimated incidence of PTSD among veterans ranged from 1% to nearly 35%, showing that understanding the true impacts of this disorder within this community will require a lot more research.
The incidence of PTSD also varies greatly depending on which conflict a service member happened to be involved with.
Recognizing the Signs, Symptoms, and Challenges of PTSD
Individuals diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder may experience a wide variety of symptoms, and veterans are no exception to this rule. However, the disorder is generally characterized by a few specific categories of symptoms, which mental health professionals often use to assess and treat the disorder.
These symptom categories, as described in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) explain the different kinds of mental health concerns veterans have, at varying degrees. The diagnostic criteria is widely accepted in psychiatry and related mental health fields. To understand the daily struggles that PTSD can entail for veterans, or to assess whether or not you may be experiencing the condition yourself, consider the following symptoms:
Intrusion of Thoughts, Memories, Flashbacks, and Dreams
This category is sometimes referred to as “re-experiencing symptoms,” and describes repeated, unwanted recollections of the traumatic event(s) in question. These “intrusive” forms of thinking include memories and dreams, which are oftentimes quite vivid and realistic. Sometimes they also can assume the form of “flashbacks,” in which a veteran may feel they are reliving the traumatic event over again.
Avoidance of Reminders of the Traumatic Event(s)
When we recall traumatic events, it can often be very emotionally distressing. This is much the same for veterans, who, when diagnosed with PTSD, may intentionally or unconsciously steer clear of stressors that might “trigger” the painful thoughts and feelings associated with their trauma.
Alterations in Cognition and Mood
Veterans who have undergone trauma and are experiencing PTSD symptoms often have complex cognitive and emotional consequences as a result. They may have difficulty remembering details of events, have negative beliefs about oneself and others, feelings of guilt and/or shame, feelings of detachment and other emotional responses as a result.
Alterations in Arousal and Reactivity
Those who experience PTSD symptoms often feel a continued sense of danger even after the actual threatening event has passed. This is because the amygdala, the region of the brain that processes fear and emotion, remains overactive, much like if real life-threatening danger was present. Veterans often report symptoms of feeling “on guard” or what mental health experts call “hypervigilance.” This can lead to being easily startled, excessive wariness, problems with focus, difficulty sleeping and other issues.
PTSD Risk Factors for Veterans
In a comprehensive meta-analysis published back in 2015, it was suggested that there may be certain variables that influence the likelihood of a veteran developing PTSD. These include the following:
- Degree to which they were exposed to combat situations
- If they discharged a weapon during combat (and if that weapon caused lethal damage)
- Witnessing life-threatening injuries or death while deployed
- The levels of social support after the traumatic exposure (such as having family and friends to rely on outside of service)
Providing Support for Veterans and their Families
- Creating a Safe and Supportive Environment
Being able to be empathetic, understanding, and non-judgmental are the cornerstones to a safe and supportive environment for veterans suffering from PTSD. Fostering open communication and active listening can help facilitate the healing process, while creating a community can reduce the feeling of isolation. Remember–it’s essential to respect a veteran’s boundaries and readiness when trying to discuss their traumatic experiences.
- Accessing Professional Help
Access to professional medical help is key to managing PTSD. Mental health providers can offer different types of therapy, like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), or exposure therapy. The VA website or the National Center for PTSD can be used to help find qualified therapists and psychiatrists to help.
- Educating about PTSD and its Management
Among the powerful tools useful in addressing PTSD, perhaps one of the most important is education. Learning about the disorder, understanding how it impacts veterans (and those around them as a result), and how to help them cope and manage it, can help dispel myths and reduce stigma. This knowledge is also often very empowering to help implement coping strategies and stress management techniques.
- Building a Supportive Network
As mentioned above, another very important part of PTSD management is the establishment of a solid support network. This network might include friends, family and mental health professionals, but also could include peer support groups and other organizations that work with those struggling with PTSD, and their families. Examples of these organizations that help vets include the American Legion or the Wounded Warrior Project.
Promoting Self-Care for Veterans and their Families
Much like any health concern, proper lifestyle choices are also a huge part in managing the symptoms. Regular exercise, a balanced diet and quality sleep, all have been scientifically shown to help reduce symptoms and severity of PTSD. Stress reduction techniques, like meditation and mindfulness, are also extremely beneficial. Having hobbies and creative outlets can be a way for veterans to feel a sense of achievement and enjoyment and take some of the intensity out of their mental health battles.
Supporting veterans and their families affected by PTSD is an issue of great importance. With the right understanding, a good dose of empathy and the availability of resources, a positive impact can be made. Learn about PTSD, become an advocate for veterans’ mental health and promote organizations that support it. After all, our veterans have made the ultimate sacrifice fighting for us–it’s about time we fight for them, too.
Claire Szewczyk, BS, is Digital Content Coordinator at Hill & Ponton.