The Disturbing Realities of PTSD

During World War II, General Patton was known to slap men who seemed to be experiencing “shell shock” under the belief that the lack of a physical injury meant that the men must be fit for battle. Nothing could have been further from the truth. As science has progressed, we’ve become more aware of the mental anguish that occurs during war, with many soldiers experiencing continued trauma after the event. Scientists have come to label this condition Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The US Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that PTSD afflicts 31% of Vietnam veterans, as many as 10% of Gulf War veterans, 11% of veterans of the war in Afghanistan, and 20% of Iraqi war veterans. And while soldiers remain most afflicted group, it’s unfortunate that PTSD is associated simply with veterans. In actuality it’s a problem that affects a wide range of people.

Despite our great leaps in knowledge since the era of General Patton, Post-traumatic Stress Disorder has not been taken seriously enough by the public. Here are 10 facts about PTSD that may surprise you.

10. Alarming suicide rate among veterans

While most people are aware that veterans face struggles when returning home, few realize the true depth of their mental anguish. A recent study reported that 18 combat veterans commit suicide every day due to PTSD, leading to a total of 126 suicides per week and roughly 6,552 per year. Although veterans make up only 9% of the US population, they make up 18% of all suicides.

Studies have shown that veterans are at much greater risk to commit suicide than civilian adults. A comparison between veterans and civilians, from 2001 to 2014, demonstrated that the civilian suicide rate rose 23.3% while the rate of suicide among veterans jumped more than 32%.

Another disturbing facet of this trend is that women who serve are at even greater risk than their male counterparts. From 2001 to 2014, the female civilian suicide rate increased by 40%, compared to a rise by more than 85% for female veterans.

It has gotten to the point that suicide has caused more deaths than combat for our troops.

9. Obscure things (sounds, smells, photographs) can trigger PTSD

One of the most difficult things about combating PTSD is that family members can be left struggling to understand the catalyst for the episodes. Family members of veterans diagnosed with PTSD have to understand that a whole host of triggers can cause a veteran to spiral into a dark state. Something as innocuous as a sound, a photograph, or a smell could lead to an episode. At first, the triggers may appear to be random, or out of the blue, but they’re connected to an experience of danger or fear that was traumatic in the past.

Think of a past memory, of Christmas morning, or a Thanksgiving feast. Those memories usually do not just include images, but sounds and smells as well. That’s exactly the case for victims of PTSD. The event contains the sounds and smells of the traumatic incident, which can be triggered by similar stimuli.

8. Women are more susceptible than men

The perception is that PTSD sufferers are mostly men who have returned home from war. However, as we noted earlier, women are actually the biggest victims of PTSD.  Studies have shown that more than half of women are likely to face a traumatic experience in their lives, due to sexual assault or child abuse. As a result, women are roughly twice as likely to develop PTSD as men.

Other factors that contribute to a woman’s greater likelihood to be diagnosed is that “women may be more likely to blame themselves for traumatic experiences than men and may have a past mental health problem (for example depression or anxiety).”

7. Symptoms may not manifest until years later

Many police officers are made to witness tragedy and treat it like just another day at the office. It’s part of the job, officers like Jonathan Figueroa would say.

Figueroa was one of the first responders on 9/11. He remembers reaching City Hall and seeing a cloud of dust. His brother-in-law was an EMT and he worried that he might have already been engulfed in the debri. According to Figueroa, “you couldn’t see anything. It looked like a major snowstorm, a blizzard… Then we heard this large boom. It was earthshaking and metal twisting.”

The sound he heard was north tower collapsing.

For the next several days, Figueroa worked on clean-up duty hoping to help, and to somehow find his brother-in-law. He recounts finding a skull, without flesh or any bit of skin, and after showing it to his supervising officer, he was told to put it down. They were looking for living people.

Officer Figueroa never found his brother-in-law. And without the body, he remembers it being difficult for the family to mourn. His brother-in-law’s death weighed on his mind, but he didn’t speak to anyone about, especially not a therapist.

Tragedy would soon strike again, when Figueroa responded to a jetliner, containing 260 people, exploding just after take-off.  “We were recovering the bodies… mothers holding their babies, charred, stuffed in the airplane seats,” he said. “You can’t block that out.”

Even after all this, Figueroa didn’t display PTSD symptoms. It took one last event to take him over the edge. The shooting of his friend, a fellow officer. Soon after, he “started feeling shaky and nervous, and right on that day, I spiraled down, and everything from the past came out: 9/11, the plane crash, my brother-in-law, the first homicide I ever saw as a rookie.”

Symptoms began. Figueroa had night sweats, night terrors, anxiety, panic attacks, dry mouth, aches and pains, heart palpitations, combined with flashbacks of horrific images with himself as the victim. His pride kept him from telling anyone. He lost weight, and death seemed to be closing in all around him. After getting his gun from his locker, with the intent to kill himself, he saw a picture of his family. That stopped him. Figueroa was able to get the help he needed in the form of talk therapy and some medication to alleviate the anxiety and terrors.

As a result of talk therapy, we’re happy to say that Figueroa was able to return to full duty and serve the people of New York City.

6. You may not get over it but you can manage it with therapy

One of the hardest things to do when you needs help is to ask for it, but it’s morally imperative that PTSD sufferers do just that. About 70% of veterans who took their own lives were not regular users of VA services. There are several forms of therapies that have proven to be effective. A novel form that many may not have heard of is called Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR).

The goal of therapy involving PTSD is re-shaping a reaction to a particular trauma. EMDR involves a victim thinking or talking about a certain memory while focusing their eyes on other stimuli, like eye movements, hand taps, and sounds. If done effectively, the person will no longer relive the images, sounds, and feelings of the trauma when the event is brought to mind, but will instead have the new stimuli as reference points.

5. Exercise can similarly help you manage your episodes

Our list has more than few surprises that we’re sure our readers thought had no connection to PTSD. One of them is the effectiveness of exercise, specifically intense exercise. Researchers have found that the stationary bike, in particular, is helpful in reducing PTSD symptoms and improving mood. Studies have found that those who exercise regularly are less likely to suffer from conditions like anxiety and depression.

Part of the reason that exercise has proven to be beneficial is that it gives sufferers “a renewed sense of determination and hope, increased quality of life, and the cultivation of positive self-identity.”

Overall, sports and frequent exercise can provide the vehicle for PTSD victims to regain a sense of achievement and self, rather than to focus on past traumatic experiences.

4. Children can also develop PTSD

If there’s one takeaway from this list, it’s that PTSD impacts more than families of veterans. Children and teens could also be victims of PTSD, if they experienced a trauma or lived through an event where someone was injured or killed. According to Child Protective Services, 5% children in the US will show signs of PTSD. In 30% of these cases, the children have been the victims of abuse. The scary part about episodes of PTSD in children is the recency of the event forces them to reconcile the traumatic events differently than adults.

As previously mentioned, adult sufferers describe flashbacks of the traumatic events. However, for many children, they’re experiencing signs that a trauma is going to happen. Many believe that “they will see these signs again before another trauma happens… they think that if they pay attention, they can avoid future traumas.”

A horrifying circle develops, with children trying to stop a trauma that has already occurred.

3. PTSD is on the rise

It may not come as a complete surprise, but PTSD cases are on the rise and the numbers aren’t pretty. A non-profit organization has warned that the number of veterans in need of help from PTSD has jumped by 71% in the past five years in the aftermath of the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns.

And while this may catch many as a surprise, the growth in cases is actually a good thing. As we’ve already mentioned, mental health problems have been a taboo topic in American society for some time, but our gradual acceptance that it’s okay to come forward has led to more people being treated and helped. Even referrals have increased “from 1,443 in the financial year 2010/11 to 2,472 in 2015/16 – a 71% rise.” We should be encouraged that more men and women are coming forward. It’s our duty to provide them with the help and resources they need.

2. 5% of military service dogs also suffer PTSD

It may be a surprise to learn that man’s best friend can also fall victim to a condition that impairs its master. Studies have found that about 5% of military dogs develop the disorder. In the military, many dogs are used for bomb detection, and in police departments for search and rescue to find bodies after disasters. It’s not surprising, then, that dogs may be adversely affected after experiencing the horrors of war and natural disasters.

In addition, similar to their masters, dogs can fall victim to PTSD from abuse. Many dogs found in shelters are suffering from PTSD as a result of mistreatment, neglect, and abandonment. Some reported cases of PTSD in dogs even occurred from losing their human caretaker. Just goes to show that animals are capable of emotions quite similar to humans.

1. Ecstasy could be a viable treatment method

Who knew Ecstasy could be more than just a party drug? Scientists have discovered that the ingredient MDMA has demonstrated promise in a small clinical study. Studies suggest that MDMA causes “a big increase in the levels of several neurotransmitters in the brain, the most predominant of which is serotonin.” The increase in serotonin leads to feelings of well-being and happiness, which is beneficial for PTSD sufferers during therapy sessions.

Psychiatrists note that the use of MDMA results in patients being in an “optimal arousal zone.” With more emotions and feelings flooding the patients, therapists are better able to discuss and reconcile the past traumatic event with the stimuli that cause episodes of PTSD.

It must be noted that ecstasy has not been proven to work in isolation, but in conjunction with therapy.

CJ Hardin is living proof that medicinal ecstasy could be of great use to PTSD sufferers. In a New York Times article, Hardin chronicles the struggles he had after returning from three tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. He was divorced, an alcoholic, and even admits contemplating suicide. All the different forms of medications and therapies associated with PTSD were not working. He was at wit’s end.

Then, in 2013, he joined a small clinical study that used MDMA, and he says, “it’s changed my life.” According to Hardin, the drug allowed him to open up about his experiences and see his trauma without “fear or hesitation.”

Here’s hoping that Ecstasy can do a little more good in the world than just helping you become the life of the party.

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