A soldier is often thought of as a brave, courageous, and strong individual. The truth is that a soldier is also human and can suffer from various mental health issues such as PTSD. 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. On Veterans Day, a federal holiday in the United States that honors our veterans, we generally thank them for their service. In reality, we should be thanking those 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 no longer 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 and tend to suppress their experiences. They may field the need to protect or shield their loved ones from 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.
Despite the fact that an estimated 1.7 million service members were deployed for combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, PTSD wasn’t fully recognized until thousands of cases of war-related mental health problems started to surface. However, since the Vietnam War, it’s been estimated that 10-20% of veterans have experienced Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). What are the symptoms? How are military men and women coping with this invisible injury? You’re about to find out.
What is PTSD?
For many years, the invisible injury of PTSD has been a topic that is rarely discussed in the media. Many people do not fully understand what it is or how someone can get PTSD.
PTSD stands for post-traumatic stress disorder, which is a condition experienced by individuals who have gone through traumatic events such as war. It can occur after any type of trauma that involves violence or injury or even witnessing these things happening to others. Symptoms include reliving the event (also known as re-experiencing) and avoiding activities or situations that remind you of the event; feeling numb or detached from others; having trouble sleeping; feeling irritable; having flashbacks; feeling angry or having outbursts of anger without an apparent cause; having trouble concentrating, remembering details, and making decisions; being on guard all the time; feeling emotionally numb; avoiding people who remind you of the trauma, and having trouble experiencing positive emotions like happiness or joy.
Not all who experience trauma will develop PTSD
Not all active military or veterans will experience PTSD. The disorder is not a given, and it’s important to remember that the symptoms of PTSD are only one piece of the puzzle.
There are very specific criteria that one must meet to be diagnosed with PTSD. PTSD symptoms include the following:
Flashbacks: reliving the trauma repeatedly. Flashbacks can include nightmares, hallucinations, or frightening vivid thoughts. In addition, individuals often experience physical symptoms such as a 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
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 the loved ones of veterans are also at risk. Children and military spouses often experience loneliness and worry when their loved one joins the military and serves abroad or is on deployment. 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.
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 PTSD:
- Seek out professional treatment
- Seek out support from other people, such as friends and family
- Find a support group
- 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 may 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.