In recent months, there's been growing media attention given to the shocking number of veteran suicides. It is, indeed, a national crisis. Surely we can all agree that our veterans gave us their best, and in return, they deserve the best from each of us. But what can each of us do, as family, friends and concerned citizens to help ease the burden of our returning servicemen and women? Here are some recommendations based on what we know about good, evidence-based treatments for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
1) Don't judge.
This may sound simple, but it's quite complex. The last thing a returning veteran needs is to feel critiqued and "re-traumatized" by family and friends. In war, all have the potential to be a victim, bystander, or perpetrator -- if the situation is terrible enough. When hear about traumatic events, it is natural to try to find a "reason" that this horrible event happened. It's also normal for us to try to psychologically distance ourselves from the victim. You might find yourself thinking, "I would have never handled things that way" or "Why wouldn't they have told a superior what was happening?" If you find yourself doing this, realize that this is just a way of trying to protect yourself mentally. While working with survivors of traumatic events, I've come to the difficult conclusion that people react as well as they possibly can in a set of absolutely terrible circumstances. If you were there, you might have reacted the same way.
2) Understand that military trauma takes many forms.
When you think of military trauma, you may assume this means being involved in active combat. Sometimes that is true, but sometimes it isn't. Our veterans may have experienced other types of traumatic events, including exposure to suffering civilians, sexual harassment, sexual assault, or even witnessing or participating in torture or other atrocities. Reactions to these events can be confusing, and may include guilt, sadness and anger. Again, these veterans need our help, not our judgments.
3) Running away from symptoms doesn't make them go away.
It's normal for veterans and their families to want to get back to normal life as soon as possible. But for some, there can only be a "new normal." Psychological studies suggest that when trauma survivors avoid thoughts, memories, people and places that remind them of the trauma, it only makes their symptoms worse in the long-term. Pretty soon, people with PTSD may find themselves living a very restricted life -- with very few activities and close relationships. Evidence-based treatments for PTSD actually help survivors face their anxiety, in small, manageable steps. Family and friends should try to work closely with mental health providers to help survivors face difficult and feared situations.
4) Realize when friends and family are not enough.
If your loved one is experiencing extreme anxiety, substance abuse, or difficulty with anger, they cannot cope with this alone. Helping someone to get into good treatment might be the most important thing you can ever do for them. Start with some hotlines and try to find treatment in your area. There are also smartphone apps available to help veterans cope with day to day symptoms.
5) Be an advocate for your veteran.
We are learning more and more about PTSD each day. For example, some drugs that are routinely prescribed for ADHD in the military, may actually make PTSD symptoms worse. Try to learn as much as you can about PTSD, and don't be afraid to ask providers (like psychiatrists and family physicians) tough questions. For example, ask them what they know about psychological treatments for PTSD and how often they treat veterans. If you don't feel comfortable, try to get another opinion. Be a champion for your veteran as they journey toward healing from the wounds of war. Our veterans served our country and now it is our turn to do right by them.
Sheela Raja, PhD is a licensed clinical psychologist and assistant professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She is the author of Overcoming Trauma and PTSD: A Workbook Integrating Skills from ACT, DBT, and CBT.