PTSD: The Invisible Disorder

Our Iraq War veterans face increased risks of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) without sufficient medical treatment. PTSD is a common but often overlooked illness in the United States today and is defined as a mental disorder caused by a disturbing psychological event. It is a debilitating condition that disrupts one’s functioning in everyday life and is usually exhibited in war veterans who often wake up screaming from nightmares about combat 30 years after their service.
Today the number of war veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan is increasing and many are diagnosed with PTSD. As an advocate for public health, I believe it is our duty to educate the public and create accessible resources. We need to offer more counseling and create cost-effective treatments for those who can potentially suffer from PTSD.
USA Today stated that about one out of seven service members return from deployments with symptoms of PTSD and that the Department of Veterans Affairs reported an approximate 70 percent jump in veterans seeking treatment for PTSD in the 12 months before June 2007. Over the next nine months, there was an additional 50 percent rise.
The most common symptoms of PTSD include flashbacks, nightmares, difficulty of falling or staying asleep and anger. These symptoms can be severe and cause impairments in normal everyday life, a life that veterans are lucky to have after serving in a war-torn region. For many war veterans, returning to civilian life from combat is always difficult, a fact that many people fail to understand. War causes veterans great emotional and physical disruptions as well as relationship disruptions with their spouses and family members. Someone who is suffering from PTSD could lose trust and isolate themselves from the people they love most.
Medical treatment is important because it gives most people relief from symptoms. Common treatments use a combination of group therapy, exposure therapy and medications such as antidepressants. Group therapy may be helpful in reducing isolation and social stigma, while exposure therapy includes images and real life conditions with traumatic memories. Recreating the traumatic event allows the patient to learn to control gradually his thoughts and feelings about the trauma. Medications also have been shown effective in reducing PTSD symptoms.
The military screens today’s troops for PTSD at the end of their tour of duty, something not done during the Vietnam War when the condition was just being identified. Yet, half of Iraq War veterans with PTSD symptoms have not obtained treatment. Americans with PTSD wait about an average of 12 years before getting treatment. Untreated PTSD can lead to further devastating consequences such as drug or alcohol abuse and sexual problems. Between 63 and 80 percent of combat veterans from the Vietnam era through the Iraq War with PTSD have sexual problems according to USA Today. Veterans with PTSD generally have more erection difficulties than other men due to biological or emotional trauma. This problem may cause them not to sleep in the same room as their spouses because of embarrassment or nightmares.
In response to the tragic increase in the number of PTSD cases due to the war in Iraq and Afghanistan today, the U.S. Marine Corps has established programs to assist war veterans in re-adjusting to civilian life. The Walter Reed Army Institute of Research developed the Battlemind program to assist service members in avoiding PTSD and other related problems by addressing safety concerns, relationship issues and normal combat-related mental health reactions.
Our nation needs a better understanding of PTSD. A recent article by Google News stated, “[U.S. senators] grilled Veterans Affairs Administration (VA) officials over an e-mail that urged staff to make fewer diagnoses of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and branded troubled soldiers seeking help as ‘compensation-seekers.'” It is absurd that officials would accuse our soldiers of trying to take advantage of medical benefits after what they’ve risked their lives for. Our veterans are only rightfully seeking help for their illness. Such accusations stem from a lack of education and understanding.
PTSD can dramatically impair a person’s life. Public health professionals must bring awareness to the public and government officials about this dreadful disorder. We need to stress the importance for war veterans to see a counselor right away, even if they believe they don’t possess symptoms.
This “invisible” disorder is hurting our soldiers and their families. Men and women’s lives fall apart when they come back home from war and don’t receive the care they deserve. We should be adding accessible services and resources for our veterans, not seeking to cut back at a crucial time where our country is at war.

Debra Tan is fourth-year public health sciences major. She can be reached at debrat@uci.edu.