Destigmatizing PTSD in the military
How the health care community supports the military community
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental illness that often develops after people survive traumatic events, such as wars, automobile accidents and rapes. It is particularly prevalent among the military population — but it doesn't seem to be a subject soldiers and veterans are comfortable discussing.
Treating PTSD can be a challenge because a strong negative social stigma often prevents soldiers from seeking help, according to Marilynn Irvine, PhD, a licensed marriage and family therapist and area chair for University of Phoenix Master of Science in Counseling programs. “PTSD is widespread in the military population given today’s multiple wartime deployments,” she says. “On the other hand, soldiers are socially conditioned not to show weakness, to be tough and resilient, and not to feel or acknowledge uncomfortable emotions. But soldiers are also human, and human beings are naturally going to have difficulty dealing with trauma.”
All branches of the military are taking additional steps to address PTSD. “There is much more focused training for clinicians on PTSD now,” says Irvine. “That includes understanding military culture, and breaking down the many social barriers to healing.”
A therapist with more than 30 years’ experience, Irvine is also a military family life consultant (MFLC) specializing in assisting military personnel and their families with stabilization and civilian reintegration efforts. “The MFLC program, administered through the Department of Defense, has been bringing civilian clinicians onto military bases and posts throughout the world to assist with PTSD screening and also provide support to soldiers and their families as they readjust to stateside life,” she explains.
Stigma is still an obstacle
PTSD is manifesting itself among the military population in unusual ways. “Substance abuse is up in the military population, as are infidelity, spousal abuse and divorce rates," says Irvine. "These are taboo subjects in the military world, which themselves are problems stigma-wise since soldiers can be dishonorably discharged for some of these activities. So they naturally don’t want to talk about it.”
Soldiers are people, too
The key to treating soldiers with PTSD is to remind them they are human, with human frailties. “PTSD can cause people to freeze up emotionally and lose their ability to connect with others,” Irvine points out. “By counseling soldiers and their families to develop compassion for their human response patterns in the face of extreme conditions, these soldiers and their families can find their way out of chaos.”
There are many options for treating military-related PTSD. “There’s supportive talk therapy, psychoeducation, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), hypnotherapy, breath work, and many others,” explains Irvine. “Hospitalization is appropriate in severe cases. And with the sheer volume of military PTSD sufferers with shared experiences, group therapy can also be a good option.”
Also, community groups like the Soldiers’ Project recruit volunteer clinicians to provide services to soldiers and their families struggling with re-integration issues. “I encourage everyone — clinicians and the community — to spread the word that PTSD is treatable and that resources do exist,” says Irvine. “We can all help to bring our troops all the way home.”