Veterans Day 2022: Examining the Struggles of PTSD and Potential Solutions
By Lindsay Turpin
In honor of Veterans Day, it’s important to consider the struggles that often befall veterans, one of the most impactful being Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The negative impact of combat and other military experiences can last for the remainder of veterans’ lives, haunting them through flashbacks, nightmares, and other mental health plights. As military service members return home from selfless endeavors, it is crucial that we support them and take measures to ensure their smooth return to normal life.
The National Center for PTSD found that 11-20% of those who served in Iraq or Afghanistan are suffering from PTSD, most often as a result of Combat Trauma. Veterans who experienced Military Sexual Trauma or brain injuries are also at an increased risk of developing PTSD, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Symptoms can include flashbacks, nightmares, emotional numbness, sleep problems, relationship struggles, bursts of anger, abuse of drugs or alcohol and general self-destructive behavior. PTSD is an extremely intense disorder that can prevent veterans from moving on with their lives and even be detrimental to their relationships.
JCI has been working to promote a documentary called Those Who Serve, which addresses some worst-case scenarios for how PTSD can haunt veterans after war and cause destruction in their lives. The film follows three case studies of veterans with PTSD who committed crimes such as murder and drug dealing, and argues that the criminal justice system must acknowledge the mental health struggles they were facing as part of the case. One veteran found himself panicked and in the middle of an intense war flashback, killing a neighbor who he thought he was in combat against. This horrific event tore him apart from his family for years, and though he was lucky to not be sent to prison, he needed to spend a long period of time in a mental institution. Another veteran was still sent to prison though he had felt mentally out of control while committing the crime. Of course, the victims of these cases deserve justice for their lost loved ones. However, if veterans were provided with more assistance in dealing with PTSD symptoms from the start, they might be able to prevent destructive behaviors such as this, and other problems on a smaller scale. Some former troops cannot bring themselves to ask for help when they need it. There must be more assistance in the transition from combat to normal life; the stark contrast between the two environments is a challenging adjustment, particularly when dealing with trauma. This film serves as a call to increase aid for veterans in mitigating PTSD, and a more holistic understanding by the court when veterans commit crimes that were caused by intense mental health troubles.
Many solutions to PTSD exist, and yet a large number of veterans go without help when suffering from this condition.
A study by the National Library of Medicine found that increasing social connectedness can help soothe the symptoms of PTSD. Combat experiences diminish a sense of social connectedness for troops, and often cause PTSD symptoms throughout the rest of a veteran’s life, so creating a strong social support system can be incredibly beneficial for mental health.
President Biden recently updated the PAWS Act, which was formerly just for wounded servicemembers, but now also allows veterans with PTSD to adopt service dogs. Interaction with service dogs has been found to decrease anger and anxiety, lower cortisol levels or soothe stress, and improve sleep, directly improving several symptoms. Some veterans have also found that working with horses improves their wellbeing and can serve as a type of therapy.
Of course, traditional therapy is also an indispensable tool in combating PTSD. The Department of Veteran Affairs offers group therapy, psychotherapy, family therapy, and cognitive behavioral therapy. Similar to other mental health conditions, talking through struggles with a licensed mental health professional can go a long way.
Mental health research has also taken more innovative routes for research recently. An app called NightWare uses an Apple Watch to detect nightmares through sensors on the wrist, then ends them through haptic methods: gentle pulses coming from the watch. The nightmare then fades away but the wearer remains asleep. Even more innovative, research has shown that psychedelics can help to treat PTSD, as well as other mental health problems such as depression and addiction. According to a study in the International Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology, MDMA was found to reduce fear and shame while increasing a sense of trust and safety, while Ketamine helped alter memory processes that were influenced by trauma. Psilocybin and LSD were sometimes able to reduce fear and anxiety, but that was dependent on the state of the patient and did not always help. However, these sometimes controversial treatments require more research.
Regardless of the creative solutions to combat-induced trauma, the systemic issues related to post-war treatment of troops are numerous.
PTSD is not simply a risk factor for the mental state of a person. It can cause downward spirals leading to job loss, homelessness, substance abuse, and other troubles. Women in particular have been found to suffer from PTSD as a result of Military Sexual Trauma and Combat Trauma, which puts them at greater risk of single parenting, domestic abuse, loss of housing and a job, and use of drugs and alcohol, according to Disabled American Veterans. The environment for veterans as they return home from a selfless feat is far from forgiving.
However, there is some good news: veteran homelessness has decreased by 11% since 2020, according to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans. There are also numerous bills working their way through the House and Senate, and leaders such as President Biden and Governor Newsom have signed legislation meant to improve lives for those who have served in the military. S.2172 would increase many different grants, payments and programs for veterans from the Secretary of Veteran Affairs. Programs would include housing and health care assistance, substance and alcohol abuse recovery, reintegration programs, improvement of public transportation, and care for elderly homeless veterans. H.R.6810 would help to further coordinate affordable housing for veterans by requiring the Government Accountability Office to report housing availability to Congress. Biden signed the PACT Act in August, which improves health care access for veterans who were exposed to toxic materials while in the military, as well as opens new facilities and expands care in general. In September, Newsom signed a bill to help LGBTQ veterans who were discharged from the military because of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. The legislation gives more LGBTQ veterans access to benefits such as education, health, and burial that they were previously denied.
Despite the progress that some legislation has made, and the promise of proposed bills such as S.2172 and H.R.6810, there is much to be done. The medical care promised to veterans from the Department of Veteran Affairs is known to be insufficient. Those using the provided healthcare endure long waits, denial of coverage for anything beyond standard treatment, and excessive red tape. The vast majority of veterans don’t even use this healthcare because it is too difficult to navigate and slow-moving.
There have been many recent victories for the aftercare of troops returning from war, such as decreasing rates of homelessness and the signing of legislation that improves their transition back home, but there will always be more to do. Particularly with PTSD, it is often a challenge for those struggling to even ask for help. Increasing awareness for the many ways that trauma can derail the lives of veterans is a must. This Veterans Day, let’s be grateful for their sacrifices by understanding the extent to which military service impacts a life, and pledge to support them in the future as they live with the trauma.