When you live in Washington, DC, it's impossible not to remember Memorial Day. That's because every year, legions of veterans-- many on Harley Davidson motorcycles--descend on the nation's capital to reconnect and remember those men and women who gave their lives for this country. Watching these veterans on their choppers never fails to choke me up.
I tried to beat the crowds this year and went down to the Mall early this morning. When I arrived, I discovered several veteran's groups already setting up tents, a number of which were devoted to mental health. For decades, the topic of veterans' mental health was all but ignored by many in this country. Thanks to organizations like Vietnam Veterans of America, however, we are beginning to see a greater public awareness of the psychological impact of war.
What do we know about PTSD?
The term Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a rather new term, but a phenomenon that has been known and treated by physicians for centuries. What we now commonly refer to as PTSD was in the 17th century simply referred to as "nostalgia" by medical doctors. During the Napoleonic Wars, battlefield surgeons began calling it "exhaustion" and by the time of the Civil War it was widely known as "soldier's heart." "Shell shock" became the term commonly used during the Great War and throughout much of the 20th century. By the time of the Vietnam War, however, the term "Post-Vietnam Syndrome" had entered the medical vernacular, leading in 1980 to "Post Traumatic Stress Disorder," as coined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual--Third Edition (DSM-III).
What is PTSD?
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, as defined by the DSM-IV, is an anxiety disorder that surfaces after a person experiences a very dangerous, frightening, and uncontrollable event such as military combat, a violent crime, a life threatening ordeal, a sexual assault, or a natural disaster like a tornado, flood, hurricane, or earthquake. If left untreated, PTSD can significantly impair a person's daily functioning, placing that person at higher risk for alcohol and/or drug abuse, domestic violence, unemployment, homelessness, incarceration, and suicide. Research studies have also shown that PTSD is also linked to physical illnesses such as chronic pain, hypertension, sleep disorders, and cardiovascular disease.
What are the symptoms of PTSD?
What are the symptoms of PTSD?
Symptoms of PTSD often, but not always, occur shortly after a person has experienced a traumatic event like the ones described above. The symptoms fall into four broad categories: 1) avoidance (e.g., amnesia, dissociation, numbing, hyper-vigilance, controlling behavior, and isolation); 2) reliving or re-experiencing the trauma (e.g., flashbacks, sleep disorders, overwhelming feelings, and overreacting); 3) victimization (e.g., distrust of others, abandonment, helplessness, and fear of change); and 4) shame (e.g., feeling guilty, feeling as if you're mentally ill, and feeling unworthy). Often those with PTSD will also develop a co-morbid disorders such as Major Depressive Disorder.
Symptoms of the disorder can last a few months to several years.
What to do if you think you or someone you care about has PTSD?
Fortunately for servicemen and women, treatment is available and, when properly administered, quite effective. There are a number of organizations that provide assistance and referrals for PTSD. These organizations include:
Tyger Latham, Psy.D. is a licensed clinical psychologist practicing in Washington, DC. He counsels individuals and couples and has a particular interest in sexual trauma, gender development, and LGBT concerns. His blog, Therapy Matters, explores the art and science of psychotherapy.