How veterans can seek treatment for PTSD
A closer look at the various treatments offered throughout the country for returning service members.
By Lindsay HoffmanTweet
May 10, 2011
PHOENIX, Ariz. -- As the longest war in United States history reaches a decade, statistics show one in eight soldiers are coming home with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury (TBI). Less then half of them are seeking help, according to the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research.
Retired Combat Engineer, Colin Day, 29, is one of the many veterans who have struggled with everyday life after returning.
From 2005 to 2006 Day served 15 months on a combat tour in Iraq, during that time he survived six improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and three mortar attacks. These events have caused Day to have PTSD and TBI.
PTSD is an anxiety disorder that can occur from an experience that is usually life threatening. Soldiers are constantly in a high state of stress in combat, so when they come home it is difficult to ignore those feelings because that stress has kept them alive, said Jessica Hamblen, Deputy of Education at the National Center for PTSD.
Traumatic memories from war can be triggered by various experiences in every day life causing simple tasks to be hard.
"I know that Al Qaeda's not going to come behind me but I am still looking for them," Day said.
Many soldiers with PTSD have similar responses to Day's.
While PTSD involves more of the emotional state of being, TBI is a physical brain injury that can occur from extreme trauma to the head.
"Traumatic brain injury makes my life a living hell everyday," he said.
TBI causes Day to have short-term memory loss and it has taken him six years to get an education that usually takes two. Having PTSD along with TBI makes maintaining relationships and a normal lifestyle difficult.
When Day first arrived home from Iraq he felt angry and alone.
"The military does a real good job teaching you how to be a solider and how to kill people, but they don't teach you how to get back into society," he said.
According to the United States Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), these are common symptoms people feel adjusting back to life when returning from war, but there are many types of treatments to help.
There are two types of effective treatments for PTSD, psychotherapy and pharmacotherapy.
Two common types of psychotherapy provided for the treatment of PTSD and TBI at the VA are exposure-based treatments and cognitive therapy.
Exposure-based therapy is a method where a patient is told to recall traumatic experiences, making the patient less sensitive to the traumatic memories.
An example of exposure-based therapy is Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). This therapy involves a patient looking at an object move back and forth, while they watch it they recall the traumatic experiences that they have witnessed.
"A therapist will say it's the talking that helps you recover and an EMDR specialist will say something about moving your eyes that makes you better. Even if it doesn't work for those reasons, it does work," Hamblen said.
Cognitive therapy looks into the specific thought process of the individual and teaches a patient how to reframe the situation.
Many soldiers in war have been through a horrifying experience that they feel guilty for. Cognitive therapy will help them assess the situation, and instead of feeling guilty, they are taught to realize their actions were necessary in order to save the maximum amount of people.
"Memories aren't scary. They can't hurt you, they feel like it but they can't," she said.
Another common treatment is pharmaceuticals. Common prescriptions are anti-depressants and anti- anxiety medications.
Many people are skeptical to taking medications, while they will take away symptoms, as soon as a person stops the dosage the symptoms will come back. Therefore, it is important to pair therapy with medications, she said.
Service members are sometimes distrusting of therapy and those who go don't always feel comfortable sharing their experiences with strangers.
"I hate doctors. I don't want them to tell me what I can do when they don't know what I've been through. I became bitter; I was not like that before I left for war," Day said.
"While these treatments may make you feel better, they are not proven to keep you feeling better. They are good things to do in addition to treatment, but people should pay attention to the evidence based," Hamblen said.
Medical treatments help but there are things patients can do everyday to speed up the recovery process.
Maintaining a routine and keeping productive is crucial and it is important for families to create a supportive environment.
"The whole family needs to adjust, roles change, kids grow up and it's hard," she said. "When people who have not been to war complain about typical things like what to wear to a party, a veteran might get mad and think that is nothing to care about. Veterans need to teach themselves that it is okay to worry about small things."
Families and veterans need to educate themselves about the effects and treatments for PTSD and TBI and its important to be understanding and patient.
"My hope is that since we know so much more than we did during the Vietnam War, we can catch people with symptoms and help them get into productive lives sooner," she said.