Father’s day has passed, and many Americans have already begun preparations for 4th of July celebrations. However, few know that sandwiched between the two early summer highlights is a less noticed but increasingly important national observance day. Tomorrow is National PTSD Awareness Day. Visibility for the disorder has increased in recent years due in part to media coverage of its prevalence in Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, but an air of mystery and stigma still shrouds the issue.
The American Psychiatric Association (APA) published the fifth edition of their diagnostic manual, DSM-5, in 2013. In it, the APA made changes to the diagnostic criteria and behavioral symptoms related to posttraumatic stress disorder. The manual now describes PTSD as a disorder caused by direct or indirect exposure to a traumatic event (actual or threatened death, serious injury or sexual violation) resulting in “clinically significant distress or impairment in the individual’s social interactions, capacity to work or other important areas of functioning.” Those afflicted can experience four different kinds of symptoms: re-experiencing, avoidance, negative cognitions and mood, and hyper-arousal.
Reading that, it’s no wonder that air of mystery and stigma still exists.
Studies have shown that social support is a key factor in whether or not a person exposed to trauma will develop PTSD. People without strong family, peer and community support are much more likely to suffer from PTSD than those with solid support networks. Thirty percent of Vietnam veterans were diagnosed with PTSD compared to 11 to 20 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans—a drop many researchers have attributed to more societal awareness and understanding of the disorder.
The smaller percentage of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans diagnosed with PTSD may represent progress, but much more must be done.
We’ve had the opportunity to gain a close-up glimpse of what it’s like living with and caring for a veteran with PTSD through our work with Caring for Military Families: Elizabeth Dole Foundation. Hundreds of thousands of our service men and women have been diagnosed with PTSD. Yet, only one out of three of them will actually seek help or treatment. The Foundation’s beneficiaries — military caregivers — speak frankly and passionately about the difficulties caring for a loved one with these insidious and invisible wounds, and the need for support and resources to help them cope with the challenges.
So, how do we become a society of support rather than one of shame, fear or silence?
The change starts with education. Becoming familiar with the disorder’s causes, signs, symptoms and treatments can turn a concerned bystander into a powerful catalyst for change. To break down the APA’s dense language, here’s what you need to know:
- Traumatic experiences can range from physical and sexual assault, to military combat, to natural disasters, and so on.
- The traumatic experience does not have to be first-hand — being witness to the event or even learning that the event happened to a close friend or family member can be traumatic enough to induce PTSD.
- Research indicates that the intensity of the experience is linked to the probability of PTSD. The U.S. Department of Veterans’ Affairs cites in this guide that 86 percent of Iraq veterans experienced receiving incoming fire, and 79 percent know someone who was seriously injured or killed.
- Re-experiencing the event through recurrent dreams, flashbacks, etc.
- Preventing trauma response through avoidance of all thoughts, places, people and emotions related to the event.
- Negative cognitions and mood, like persistent sense of blame, loss of memory for aspects of the event, and isolation.
- Being hyper-aroused, either through aggressive and angry behavior or over-reactive startle response.
- PTSD is curable with consistent and engaged treatment.
- A variety of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy techniques have been shown to be very effective in treating PTSD, including controlled re-exposure in a safe environment.
- EMDR, a relatively new but highly effective therapy, is aimed at changing the response to traumatic memories.
- Some medicines, particularly anti-anxiety medications, can be useful in managing symptoms.
Learn about PTSD and share what you learn with your colleagues and friends. You can do a lot by supporting National PTSD Awareness Day on your social media channels. Let’s all make an effort to lessen the mystery and reduce the stigma.
By Cassady Burns, SDI
June 26, 2015