Active-duty military members and veterans often face challenges when readjusting to civilian life. For some, this can lead to drug or alcohol use to cope with trauma, stress, or other mental health concerns. As we acknowledge Veterans Day, a federal holiday in the United States that honors our veterans who sacrificed their lives for our freedoms. When veterans return home from active duty, they are not always able to re-adjust to their new life at home. They may not have a job, a home, or a family to come back to, putting them on the brink of poverty or homelessness. Many do not know how to cope with what they experienced while away and, as a result, may isolate themselves or turn to alcohol or drugs to numb their pain and cope with their PTSD.
Not all who experience trauma will develop PTSD
Trauma is tricky because it is often much more than what can outwardly be seen, as most trauma is invisible. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, 11-20 out of every 100 veterans experience post-traumatic stress disorder, a number that is both overwhelming and, unfortunately, not always acknowledged to the degree that it should be. Although this number seems high, the number of veterans who have experienced trauma while in service is much higher. Only a small percentage of individuals who experience trauma will go on to be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Many veterans experience trauma before they join the military, and these past traumatic events rear their ugly heads while these soldiers are on active duty.
Trauma comes in all forms, from physical trauma and emotional trauma to verbal trauma and sexual trauma, and soldiers often fall victim to all sorts of trauma. Phantom leg syndrome, traumatic brain injury, chronic pain, or limb amputations are physical traumas that often occur in battle due to traumatic events such as violent attacks. Soldiers return home from service in physical pain and may have nightmares or flashbacks about their attack. They may turn to alcohol or drugs to numb the physical pain and the emotional pain as well.
Culture shock, witnessing death through combat exposure, and multiple deployments resulting in being away from loved ones can all result in mental and emotional trauma. And sadly, there are many episodes of sexual assault and verbal abuse. These traumatic experiences are often faced not only by female veterans but by male veterans as well. Hate speech, bullying, and sexual assault are not talked about frequently and are prominent traumatic issues in the military that are often pushed under the rug. Men and women who experience sexual assault or harassment often live and work with the person who committed this violence. If the bully supervises or outranks the victim, they may make threats against the person’s career or shut out options for help and support. Service members do not have the option of leaving a job because of a hostile working environment and could face charges for not following orders. As a result, many men and women in the military do not report their sexual or emotional trauma out of fear of being treated unfairly or being dismissed from the military.
Not only veterans are at risk of trauma and its related effects, such as PTSD, but loved ones of veterans are also at risk of trauma-related mental health issues. Children and military spouses often experience loneliness and worry when their loved one joins the military and serves abroad. One of the pillars of their family is gone, and this can lead to a sense of loss. Spouses and children may eagerly await the return of a deployed loved one only to feel as though a changed person has entered their lives. Children may act out or have trouble in school as they get used to their loved ones being home again. The stress of deployment, moving often, and military culture, as well as challenging transitions when the veteran returns home, can be a reason that family members might experience trauma-related mental issues and may even turn to drugs or alcohol to cope.
What is PTSD?
Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a trauma-related mental health disorder that affects a percentage of individuals who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic, life-threatening event. Not everyone who undergoes trauma will develop PTSD. In fact, only a small percentage of individuals will develop PTSD after experiencing a dangerous event. PTSD symptoms usually begin within three months of the traumatic incident, but sometimes they begin years afterward. Symptoms must last more than a month and be severe enough to interfere with multiple aspects of daily living, including work, school, and relationships. There are very specific criteria that one must meet to be diagnosed with PTSD. PTSD symptoms include the following:
Flashbacks: reliving the trauma over and over again. Flashbacks can include nightmares, hallucinations, or frightening vivid thoughts. In addition, individuals often experience physical symptoms such as racing heartbeat or sweating during these flashbacks. Other behaviors or symptoms may include:
- Avoiding places, events, objects, thoughts, or feelings that are reminders of the traumatic experience
- Being easily startled
- Feeling tense or “on edge”
- Having difficulty sleeping
- Having angry outbursts
- Trouble remembering key features of the traumatic event
- Negative thoughts about oneself or the world
- Distorted feelings like guilt or blame
- Loss of interest in enjoyable activities
Seeking help for trauma and PTSD
A traumatic event does not necessarily have to result in the development of PTSD. Seeking help immediately after the trauma can help prevent PTSD. Here are a few ways to help adjust to life after experiencing trauma and for PTSD:
- Seek out professional treatment
- Seek out support from other people, such as friends and family
- Find a support group after a traumatic event
- Learn to feel good about one’s own actions in the face of danger
- Adopt healthy coping strategies
- Learn to respond effectively despite feeling fear
If you or a loved one has developed PTSD, it is crucial to seek professional treatment as soon as possible. Research shows that the earlier you seek treatment, the higher likelihood you have of recovery. With the right treatment plan, you can live a life free of PTSD symptoms, regardless of how many years you have dedicated your life to active duty. AKUA Mind and Body is a full-service mental health and addiction treatment center with locations across California. Our team has years of extensive experience supporting veterans and their families. Akua also has many licensed therapists with experience in all forms of trauma therapy from EMDR, Prolonged Exposure, and Cognitive Processing Therapy to Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) – we offer a wide range of behavioral therapies for PTSD. We also offer medications that can sometimes help alleviate the symptoms associated with PTSD. As we approach Veterans Day, it is important to take a moment to remember those who sacrificed not just their bodies but their mental health to serve our country. We believe that no veteran should be left behind, and everyone should receive the treatment that they deserve. This is why Akua also offers “scholarships” for former service members who may need further assistance in paying for the services one may desperately need.