Summertime in the U.S. is kicked off by Memorial Day, a holiday to remind us all what it means to be an American. It evokes feelings of patriotism and love of country and underscores the importance of honoring those patriots who made the ultimate sacrifice for freedom. But what about the patriots who return from battle? One of the dangers they encounter off the battlefield is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). While many traumatic events are unforeseeable, our service men and women enter into their occupation with an exceptionally high likelihood of experiencing trauma. The sacrifice they make extends far beyond their time in active duty to the mental and emotional hardship they may face long after they return home. But did you know there are other victims of PTSD who have never served in the armed forces? What exactly is PTSD and who are these other victims?
To get answers to these questions about PTSD and resources available to treat it, we reached out to Mariam Massoud,LMFT, education specialist, Memorial Hermann Behavioral Health Services.
What is PTSD?
Hearing about PTSD often brings to mind images of soldiers and warfare, but anyone can have PTSD. According to the American Psychiatric Association, PTSD is a mental health disorder that can develop in individuals who have experienced a traumatic event such as a personal attack, rape, natural disaster, or a shocking event. It is natural to have emotional responses to trauma; however, an individual with PTSD continues to experience intense disturbances beyond the typical response.
PTSD affects an estimated 8 percent of the general population, most whom have never served in the military. This number means that individuals outside of the armed forces are experiencing events that bring about the same or similar negative symptoms as someone who has served on the battleground.
Oftentimes, people are unsure about what qualifies as traumatic. Simply put, the American Psychological Association says that “trauma is an emotional response to a terrible event.” Further, traumatic events are considered to be those in which an individual may fear for their life, or in some cases of secondary trauma, they are exposed to such an event through another person’s telling.”
These experiences will have varying effects from one person to the next. Some responses immediately following a traumatic event, such as shock and denial, are considered to be typical and may not be indicators of PTSD. However, long-term, persistent symptoms should be discussed with a healthcare provider.
What are the symptoms of PTSD?
Marked symptoms of PTSD, whether civilian or military, include: flashbacks, night terrors, avoidant behaviors, an increased startle response, sleep disturbances, emotional outbursts, depression-like symptoms (loss of interest, trouble concentrating), and distorted feelings of guilt and blame.
Perhaps the symptoms we are most familiar with are those we see portrayed in films with characters struggling with PTSD. Released in 2014, the movie American Sniper was based on the story of U.S. Navy Seal Chris Kyle. In the film, Kyle experiences a number of traumatic events during his tours and his struggle with PTSD can be observed during his interactions with his family. Kyle is portrayed as more anxious and irritable at home. Additionally, he appears to have trouble concentrating on present happenings, displays inappropriate responses to sound triggers, and struggles with flashbacks of past events.
What are some other causes of PTSD?
In the general population, about 60 percent of men and 50 percent of women experience trauma in their lifetime. Examples of trauma that can trigger PTSD include accidents, disasters, physical and sexual assault, and child abuse or neglect.
A large portion of individuals diagnosed with PTSD is a result of Intimate Partner Violence (IPV). More than 25 percent of women and more than 10 percent of men report that they have been harmed by an intimate partner. IPV includes physical violence in a relationship as well as psychological or emotional abuse, stalking and threats of abuse. Exposure to abusive relationship dynamics can trigger traumatic emotional responses and contribute to the development of PTSD.
Where can people find help for PTSD?
Struggling with PTSD can be isolating. In fact, isolation may be in itself a risk factor. The thoughts and feelings one is having may hinder him or her from seeking the appropriate help and treatment. However, help is available. There are a number of treatment options out there for those struggling with PTSD.
Treatment may consist of therapies specific to addressing trauma and the emotional response one experiences, as well as medication to aid in mood stabilization and symptom reduction. Mental health professionals – including psychiatrists, therapists, counselors and medical providers – can help to direct an individual to the appropriate level of care.
Memorial Hermann provides mental health services through its Mental Health Crisis Clinics. The clinics address behavioral health needs, operating at non-traditional hours in an effort to provide care when it is needed most. Patients can be seen by a provider the same day and meet with a social worker for assistance in connecting with an ongoing provider. The clinic may also be utilized by individuals who are in need of behavioral health care when they are unable to see their established provider.