The tragedy at Fort Hood, Texas, in which an Army Specialist shot and killed three people before turning the gun on himself has sparked a national dialogue on identifying and treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The soldier who committed these murders was never officially diagnosed with PTSD but instead was being treated for multiple mental health conditions which included anxiety, sleep problems and depression.
Too often soldiers with PTSD are medicated for symptoms without being properly diagnosed. There are a number of factors in play for returning vets.
1. An Illness with Serious Symptoms. PTSD is a brain illness brought on by a traumatizing experience. People with the illness become hyper-vigilant lest they be caught unawares and unprepared even when they are in situations where no threat exists. The person re-lives the trauma through nightmares or flashbacks and will avoid anything that triggers a memory of the event.
2. A Minority Develop PTSD. Many people live through harrowing or deeply distressing situations. Natural disaster survivors, victims or witnesses of violent crimes and others join combat soldiers in this kind of intense trauma. However, not all who undergo these experiences wind up suffering from PTSD.
Within the military, some experts suggest that 15 to 20 percent of trauma-exposed veterans experience the condition. The Department of Veterans Affairs sponsored a study which set the rate at 30 percent of those serving in Afghanistan or Iraq. One-third of recent vets would equal 600,000 men and women. This is a staggeringly large number and yet it represents only a minority of uniformed soldiers.
3. Risk Factors. For soldiers, a traumatic event such as combat is an obvious risk factor. But there are others. Having a family history of mental illness (depression, anxiety, etc.) can increase a soldier’s risk of developing PTSD. So too can chronic stress following the event or the absence of social support in processing what was experienced.
4. Roadblocks to Diagnosis. Many soldiers who have PTSD don’t recognize it in themselves and don’t look for help. Further, even if a soldier feels that something is wrong, mental illness is often perceived as weakness and that is something that soldiers are trained to overcome. Finally, many worry that admitting to struggles will mean the end of their military career.
5. A Happy Ending is Possible. Overcoming PTSD is the happy ending to a sad tale. There are several successful therapies being used to help soldiers overcome trauma-induced anxiety and anger. Exposure therapy, virtual reality and cognitive processing therapy have all shown promise.