Friday, April 17, 2015

Military & Veterans Affairs Committee: Lend An Ear, Lend A Heart - The Misunderstood Affliction Of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

By George E. Nader

Your cherished loved one steps back on American soil, fresh home from the battlefield or military service thousands of miles away. Inside you burst with joy and relief. Outside you brim with smiles and exultation. Normalcy has returned. The family is back in tact. All is right in the world. Wait just a minute please. Not so fast. Your homebound veteran may not feel the same inside. 

Nearly every returning military veteran who has been exposed to danger or lived in a threatening environment will suffer some form of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD. They do not necessarily have to have been involved in combat. They may not experience it the minute they arrive at our shores. The indices of PTSD may not be readily apparent, but they lurk within, and you can ultimately see it. You should realize it and try to understand the extent of its debilitating grasp. You should ask about it in a tender, loving, non-confrontational way. 

Dr. Michael Maher, a medical doctor board-certified in psychiatry with a practice in south Tampa, says ultra-sensitivity to risk and danger is normal for a returning veteran and can last up to six months. Concern may be warranted after three months if your vet appears stuck or moving backward. After six months, if your vet has not adapted and cannot go out at night, has a heightened sensitivity about safety, is jumpy, can’t make reasonable judgments about what really constitutes a danger, has sleep disturbance, suffers from extreme worry, has hostility in or withdraws from relationships, shows an inability to function, stays disconnected, or displays anger or anxiety, he or she likely has reached the threshold of PTSD, and it’s time to get help. Other signs include hypervigilance, mistrust, alienation, flashbacks, nightmares, and guilt. When parents return from military service and will not attend their kids’ baseball or softball games, PTSD is full blown, and loved ones must act. 

PTSD is disabling and potentially life threatening. It needs attention and care. PTSD has nothing to do with being strong or weak, and it may not be in proportion to the danger to which a veteran was exposed.

“It’s not a big mystery like you might think,” says Dr. Maher. “You should be on the lookout for it.” Dr. Maher says it’s OK to ask questions like: “I know you are back; how are you doing? Is there anything I can do for you? I know it can be a tough time, and I appreciate this can be a hard thing. If I can help you in any possible way, please let me know.”

Avoidance of the subject by family and friends is absolutely the wrong response, Dr. Maher says. Giving your veteran space is appropriate, and you should never pressure him or her into talking. However, simple, caring questions like those above will help the vet ease into the assistance he or she needs. Often, veterans or other people suffering from PTSD are in denial, not so much that they were in a rough and dangerous place but more so in thinking, “I can handle it” or “It’s not really getting to me.” Loved ones should always express “I’m here for you” and be open to their issues. Be patient, as they may want to recount the same things repeatedly. 

Dr. Maher says the best therapy for PTSD is having someone to talk with and understand what the veteran has been through. Engage the veteran in a meaningful discussion of his or her experience, with compassion and respect. Both professional help through cognitive therapy and dialogue with family and friends are invaluable. Medical therapy is secondary. The dual approach of professional and family/friend help is the ticket to healing. Relaxation techniques, support groups, family group therapy, exercise, being outdoors, and getting involved in church, school, or volunteer organizations are also beneficial. 

Outward, demonstrable signs like fear, crying, and depression may not always be apparent.  Whether deployed as active-duty personnel or through the reserves, whether in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, or Coast Guard, veterans with PTSD may not display such obvious symptoms. Thus, the need to ask is imperative … as well as to lend an ear and, most importantly, lend a heart.