PTSD: the pitfalls of stigma and stereotypes

by Chris Frueh, PhD on April 9, 2010 · 4 comments

in depression,stigma,trauma

You’ve heard about them in the news, maybe seen them in an airport or sat next to one of them on a flight. You maybe a family member, neighbor, co-worker or friend with one of them. Who are they? They are our nation’s warriors, the men and women in our Armed Forces, individuals who make extraordinary sacrifices for our national interests.

Many of us do not think about them as often as we probably should because they usually stay under our radar, quietly doing their jobs efficiently and expertly. After they are discharged from the military, some of them will need help adjusting to civilian life—and yes, some of them will suffer posttraumatic reactions that will require mental health care.

Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is, arguably, the most commonly recognized form of emotional problem following military stress. The disorder, formally recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) since 1980, is characterized by a constellation of anxiety-based symptoms that include:

  • trauma-related nightmares
  • recurrent thoughts
  • “flashbacks,”
  • sleep-disturbance
  • anger management difficulties
  • avoidance of feelings and activities
  • social isolation
  • hypervigilance
  • exaggerated startle response to loud noises or sudden movements

The disorder is also associated with interpersonal difficulties, including problems with intimacy, marital and family relationships and workplace relationships. PTSD as we define it is a serious psychiatric disorder that can have dramatic and devastating consequences.

What Can We Do?

Don’t stigmatize or judge:  Be compassionate; understand that some people returning from war may have emotional difficulties or problems readjusting to life as a civilian. In addition to PTSD, other emotional problems such as depression, anxiety, substance abuse and marital problems may also be troubling for some. In fact, depression and interpersonal difficulties are probably more common than PTSD after deployment. The Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs offer a range of mental health services and benefits to help our warriors overcome these problems. There are also other private and community services available. If you know a veteran or a member of our Armed Forces who may be struggling to adapt to civilian life after overseas deployment, encourage them to seek professional counsel—because PTSD and depression are treatable conditions!

Don’t assume or stereotype:  It’s also wise not to make assumptions or rely on stereotypes about how an individual will or should respond to life post-deployment. Remember, the large majority of veterans adapt quite well to life after their combat service is over. Furthermore, of those veterans who do appear to be having difficulties, very few of them will fit the stereotype depicted so often in Hollywood movies. In his fine book Stolen Valor, B.G. “Jug” Burkett, himself a Vietnam veteran, reviewed the actual data related to many of the most common myths of the “dysfunctional Vietnam veteran” of stereotype and found that they were just that—myths.

Consider these lessons from a previous era:  In his book Band of Brothers, about E Company of the 506th Regiment of the 101st Airborne, a highly decorated combat unit that fought in the Normandy Invasion, Operation Market Garden and Bastogne and took nearly 150% casualties over the last year of World War II, historian Stephen Ambrose wrote of their post-war lives:

They accepted a hand-up in the G. I. Bill, but they never took a handout. They made their own way.  A few of them became rich, a few became powerful, almost all of them built their houses and did their jobs and raised their families and lived good lives, taking full advantage of the freedom they had helped to preserve….

There are many ways to support the men and women who have served overseas in our nation’s Armed Forces. I urge each of us to stop and think about what we can do personally for the returning veteran in our families, our churches and synagogues, our schools, and our neighborhoods. When you encounter one of them, perhaps the most important thing you can do is to welcome them home—and thank them for their service!

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