WASHINGTON – The shooting death of a former Navy SEAL sniper has brought attention to the problem of post-traumatic stress disorder, which has affected as many as 20 percent of veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
Some questions and answers about PTSD:
Q: What is PTSD?
A: PTSD is an intense physical and emotional response to memories of a traumatic event. Some PTSD patients re-live the event and have flashbacks and nightmares. Some avoid certain activities or places that remind them of the event. Often, those with PTSD are on hyper-alert. They have difficulty sleeping, concentrating and are sometimes irritable. The symptoms can vary dramatically depending upon the person. One will feel numb. Another will often be on edge. Experts say PTSD can increase anger, but there is no evidence that having PTSD increases the likelihood of committing a homicide. To complicate matters, it’s common for other conditions to occur with PTSD. For example, nearly half of women with PTSD also experience depression.
Q: How can people better cope with PTSD?
A: Experts encourage those with PTSD to turn to family and friends for support and to share their experiences and feelings with them. Many with PTSD recover without treatment, but others will need professional help, especially if the symptoms are interfering with family and work. What not to do? Avoid isolation. Officials say that a support system of family and friends is critical to coping with PTSD, so it’s important for people who suffer the disorder to take part in social activities, even if they don’t feel like it. The VA also recommends exercise, volunteering in the local community and having more contact with other trauma survivors.
Q: How many veterans are believed to be dealing with PTSD?
A: In the latest fiscal year ending Sept. 30, more than 500,000 veterans with a PTSD diagnosis were treated at hospitals and clinics run by the Department of Veterans Affairs. The numbers show that PTSD is not just a phenomenon of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Veterans from those wars made up only about a quarter of the patients treated last year with a PTSD diagnosis. That the vast majority served in the first Gulf War, Vietnam or earlier shows how long PTSD can last. The VA says that not everyone who gets treatment will be cured, but treatment can help people cope better with their symptoms.
Q: What is the VA doing to help them?
A: Veterans who come to the VA for the first time are automatically screened for symptoms of PTSD, as well as for depression and alcohol abuse. Those who screen positive undergo more evaluation and treatment. More than 47,000 VA doctors have received training for therapies cited by the Institute of Medicine as proven to be the most effective for PTSD.
Q: How is PTSD treated?
A: Everyone is different. Dr. Charles Marmar of New York University Langone Medical Center said that treating a highly-functioning person soon after their trauma can be accomplished in four to six weeks. But if a soldier served three tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the PTSD is complicated by depression or drug use, treatments can last one or more years.
The two main treatments for people with PTSD are psychotherapy or medication, and sometimes both. It’s also important to get care from a mental health provider who is experienced with PTSD.
In psychotherapy, patients work through how trauma changed the way they look at the world and themselves and how they can change their thoughts in a constructive way. A class of anti-depressants used in treating depression, called SSRIs, is effective in treating PTSD, too. Another medication called Prazosin has been found to be helpful in decreasing nightmares.
Q: Are veterans the only people dealing with PTSD?
A: No. Anyone can get PTSD at any age. Survivors of a physical and sexual assault can have PTSD, as can survivors of an accident or weather disaster. So can police, firefighters and medical personnel who witness a traumatic event. Some people get PTSD after a friend or family member is harmed. The sudden, unexpected death of a loved one can also cause PTSD.