The U.S. loses more of its soldiers to suicide than to combat. What trauma specialists have learned from sex abuse survivors may help combat veterans heal, as well. MaleSurvivor’s Chris Anderson reports.
New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristoff recently wrote about the explosion of mental health claims and the stark rise in suicides by returning veterans. He noted that more veterans will die by their own hand this year than will be killed in combat. For many veterans, effective treatment for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and depression is far too difficult to find. While the Department of Defense and Veteran’s Administration have devoted more and more resources to mental health, it still remains difficult for many veterans to find the help they need.
According to the article, almost half of returning veterans are filing for disability compensation, oftentimes for mental health related claims. The high rate of suicides among veterans is an indication that many of these claims are legitimate. It is clear that there are thousands and thousands who are legitimately struggling with dark demons that many of their families and friends aren’t equipped to help them with.
It is a good sign that what was once considered a sign of weakness, or not a “real” injury, is finally gaining the attention and compassion it merits. We are finally recognizing soldiers suffer from PTSD and depression far more than previously thought. But as we learn more about how PTSD causes serious emotional suffering, we are still struggling to find ways to help our returning servicemen and women who are suffering recover and regain a healthy life. It is imperative that we understand that PTSD is an injury to both the psyche and the brain. Both kinds of harm must be addressed with expert care. But where can we turn for expert insights on how to help people who have struggled with PTSD and severe experiences of trauma?
Some of the answers may be found by looking at the similarities in the physical and psychological impact of battlefield trauma and sexual abuse. On a neurobiological level PTSD involves similar brain changes in war veterans as sexual abuse survivors. Put simply, repeated exposure to trauma can hamper the brain’s ability to shut off instinctive “fight or flight” responses. War veterans and sexual abuse survivors both display alterations of brain circuits that control our ability to control this response. Over time, this can lead to higher levels of anxiety, feelings of not being able to manage one’s emotions and thoughts, and—in extreme cases—not merely suicidal thoughts but suicidal behavior. But whether the injury was inflicted on the battlefield or in a bedroom, all survivors of trauma and abuse have the ability to recover. Indeed, the capacity of the human brain to heal is remarkable and this has been one of the greatest and most important scientific findings of the past 20 years (see www.normandoidge.com).
Lessons learned from the treatment of sexual abuse survivors, and implemented in the trauma-informed care model, can help inform our efforts to help veterans who are battling PTSD. One important lesson is to realize that each person has a unique story and healers need to be flexible in their approach. Two soldiers injured in the same battle may require radically different treatment approaches simply because they are different people. One may respond well to talk therapy and medication, while another may benefit much more from body-centered forms of treatment that focus on cultivating mindful awareness and movement (e.g., There & Back Again). Both may technically have suffered the same injury in the same moment, but their subjective experiences, and the paths their healing journeys need to take can be radically different. Or the same person may benefit from different approaches at different times.
Another lesson that we have to take to heart is that, oftentimes, the healing journey can take far longer than people realize. There are survivors of isolated incidents of sexual abuse endured as a child who struggle for years, sometimes decades, with the after effects of that trauma. The pain may be exacerbated and the damage magnified by the silent shame that victims often carry within themselves. The pressure to keep the shame of their pain hidden from the rest of the world is a burden that both sexual abuse survivors and veterans who appear physically unscathed instinctively understand.
In fact, there is yet another reason to believe that treatment strategies that have been effective with sexual abuse survivors can be effective for returning veterans. As our awareness of the extent to which our young men and women are sexually abused is finally being understood, we are finally realizing that far more of our service members are themselves survivors of abuse. At least 1 in 6 males and 1 in 4 females are victims of sexual abuse before the age of 18, and some studies have found that the proportion of service members who are survivors of sexual abuse mirrors or exceeds the rate in the general population. This is to say nothing of the distressingly high number of sexual assaults experienced by service members during their tours of duty. This begs the question, how many of those veterans who have taken their own lives are also struggling with demons that haunted them well before the war?
There is strong evidence that patient, informed care helps improve the lives of trauma survivors. None of this is news to the professionals who work with the VA and the DOD to try and respond to the needs of our returning veterans. What is not as fully acknowledged is that within the VA system itself, experiences for individual service members seeking help can vary widely depending on where they are located and whom they have the good or bad fortune to see. While there is hope that access to good trauma-informed treatment is improving, it is clear that we have a long, long way to go. The truth is that every survivor of abuse and trauma has the ability to recover. But we must ensure that all survivors have access to hope, healing, and support they need.
In Canada and the U.S., the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
Read more on Suicide.
Army veteran half portrait courtesy of Shutterstock