By Katie Scarlett Brandt
Heather Yang didn’t enroll in the Army reserves for combat and action. The Chicago resident enlisted while still in high school in New York, during a relatively peaceful time in the mid-’90s. The September 11 attacks hadn’t yet happened, and the U.S. had years earlier completed the Gulf War.
But during three deployments, she saw action — overseas and at home. Yang’s first deployment came in 1999, when she spent a year in Bosnia as a military police officer on a peacekeeping mission. Then on September 11, 2001, within hours of planes flying into the World Trade Center, Yang’s reserve unit was activated. She spent the next month at Ground Zero, conducting search- and-rescue missions and controlling in-and-out access to the zone.
“It was complete chaos,” Yang says. “I think that’s when my PTSD started.”
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) stems from exposure to trauma. Recurrent reminders of traumatic events can plague veterans in various ways, including nightmares and flashbacks. They may feel constantly on guard for another perceived attack. And their inward turmoil can come out as irritability, anger or reckless behavior.
It’s a slippery disorder, commonly entrenched in substance abuse, suicidal depression, homelessness and other struggles that divide families and splinter relationships. Think of the trauma as a rock breaking a lake’s surface, its impact radiating out in circles.
“PTSD, depression and substance abuse all impact education and employability. And that impacts housing and insurance. It can be a cycle,” says psychiatrist Neeral Sheth, DO, associate medical director of the Road Home Program at Rush University Medical Center.
Combat poses an obvious PTSD risk. Loud noises like fireworks can trigger a PTSD episode for veterans exposed to guerrilla attacks, as can something as simple as garbage along a curb for veterans who had to scan roadsides for improvised explosive devices (IEDs).
As the United States approaches nearly two decades of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, an estimated 20% of veterans from those wars are searching for ways to cope with that mental anguish.
A safe return home doesn’t mean the battle is over. The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) reports that an average of 20 veterans commit suicide daily, which accounts for 20% of all suicides in the U.S. “They feel like they have no way out,” says Yang, who was diagnosed with PTSD in 2005, shortly after moving to Chicago.
More than 500,000 U.S. troops from the latest generation of veterans have been diagnosed with PTSD. But not even half of those who need mental health services get treatment. Access to care creates one barrier, in part due to long waits at VA medical centers. Stigma is a major hurdle as well. The general public’s shame around mental illness comes across even more strongly in military communities, which prize toughness.
“It can feel weak to seek help for emotional issues, especially if you’ve grown up feeling like you should be able to fix this on your own,” says Sheth, an assistant professor in the department of psychiatry at Rush University Medical Center. “In the military, you’re supposed to show your strong side, powerful side. Acknowledging an issue is difficult.”
However, the VA is trying to address the issue. The department’s AboutFace campaign features dozens of short, candid videos of veterans talking about PTSD, how treatment works and ways the disorder has affected their families. The AboutFace website provides guides to dealing with a crisis, seeking help within the VA and finding an outside therapist.
To destigmatize therapy and increase access to care, the VA is increasing its remote therapy sessions, which are conducted over the phone or computer. This not only helps veterans ease into treatment, but also is more convenient for the 38% of veterans with PTSD who live in rural areas.
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YOU ARE NOT ALONE
If you or a Veteran you know is suffering from PTSD, Anxiety, Loneliness or Depression, you are not alone.
The – Minds At War – Crisis Support Helpline Number is open 24/7 and a First Responder is on call at all times.
- 0800 031 4368
You can also ring this same number during normal hours and seek advice, support and guidance.