Policy: Health Care

Facts and myths about PTSD

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As we recognize our American heroes this Veteran’s Day, it’s important to not only acknowledge the men and women who served our country proudly, but to better understand the challenges many of them face on a day-to-day basis.

A challenge facing one of every five veterans is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Understanding this mental health condition and its impact on veterans has become increasingly difficult. Some media reports link PTSD to recent shootings and other incidents of violence with little to no basis of fact to support these claims.

The truth remains elusive when headlines and sound bites about PTSD abound, and after more details become available, we often learn the PTSD connection was completely irrelevant or incorrect.

Although journalists have a responsibility to report the news and spur high ratings, as professionals we have a duty to diffuse the hype and get the particulars about PTSD right for the public.

The public needs to understand that individuals who separate or retire from the military and return to civilian life exchange one social structure for another — a structured culture for an unstructured one, a military culture for a civilian culture.

Veterans are faced with learning to adapt to a change in culture and the passage of starting a new beginning in life and work.

The struggle a veteran faces is especially marked in those suffering PTSD and/or Traumatic Brain Injury. However, the truth archetype of PTSD is far less volatile than the public is led to believe.

There are four clusters of symptoms of PTSD:

1. Re-experiencing: Nightmares, flashbacks or having triggers that brings back thoughts of the combat zone. For example: loud noises, smells and sights. Understanding triggers can be valuable.

2. Avoidance: Don’t want to think about their time in the combat theatre or be exposed to people, places or things that remind them of their traumatic experience. They avoid talking about it, and attempt (usually unsuccessfully) to even think about it.

3. Negative thoughts and emotions: People with severe PTSD may have socialization issues. One of the symptoms of avoidance is what’s called a constriction of mood, or no full range of moods, just parts (usually the negative ones) of moods.

Another symptom is detachment, or the feeling that they’re not all there; their minds are elsewhere. Lack of trust abounds, and guilt may be present.

4. Arousal: Not sleeping well at night, being easily started, jumpy, hyper-vigilant or suspicious, anger, irritability and agitation.

Sometimes a vet with PTSD may overact and get upset when people do simple things wrong, or fail to follow “the rules.”

These are the top four prevailing myths about PTSD:

1. PTSD is like pregnancy: It’s all or it’s none; it is or it isn’t. Most people don’t know that PTSD symptoms range from very mild and almost non-observable to very severe. Many veterans with PTSD do not have very severe symptoms.

2. PTSD provokes people to cause trouble in the workplace, especially with violence. Those with PTSD are not prone to erratic and violent behavior, any more than others without the condition.

3. Everybody who’s been to the Middle East or who’s been in combat has PTSD. Studies have found that 20 percent of veterans returning from the combat zone have PTSD. This means four in five don’t have it.

4. There is nothing that can be done to treat the condition: Once you get it, you got it and there’s just very little that can be done for you. Not true at all!

Part of the perceived challenge on the road to reintegration, particularly into civilian culture and corporate America, is misunderstanding, misperceptions and miscommunication about those who served in the military and how they can fit in.

Gaining an understanding and discovering the truth will lead to a greater appreciation for those who served in the military.

Veterans are naturally loyal, reliable, disciplined, good communicators, exceedingly productive, leaders and team builders, and highly regarded for their soft skills.

They have the capacity and should be able to retrain themselves to function in an environment other than that which they were accustomed to being successful.

The “first reports” unrealistically and inappropriately connecting illegal behavior with PTSD often promotes continued mistruths about it, and furthers the stigma and misconception associated with the condition.

Now armed with the truth this Veteran’s Day, if you are one to hold fast to headlines and sound bites, consider a new way of consuming reports on PTSD and ask yourself: PTSD did what to whom? Is it media hype or truth archetype?

Dr. Harry Croft is a psychiatrist who has seen more than 7,000 veterans diagnosed with PTSD and is co-author of "I Always Sit with My Back to The Wall: Managing Combat Stress and PTSD." Sydney Savion, Ed.D. is a retired military officer, applied behavioral scientist and author of "Camouflage to Pinstripes: Learning to Thrive in Civilian Culture."
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