While attending a local sporting event I was approached by an old friend whose family member was having difficulty. As it happened the family member had recently returned from combat duty overseas.
This is never an easy situation…but it is no secret that our troops have been exhausted by two wars and endless deployments. Sadly the rates of suicide and post-traumatic stress disorder among military personnel are at all-time highs. Just as sad and potentially tragic, the stigma associated with mental health issues often acts as a major barrier to veterans seeking services.
If you think about it, even the term Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is misleading…it’s not a disorder, it’s an injury. We don’t refer to someone with a broken leg as a result of combat as having a “leg disorder.” Just has someone’s body can be broken by combat, so can their mind. Fortunately, in the majority of cases, both mind and body can heal. First and foremost, we as a society have to change the conversation about mental health, and send the message to our veterans that it is OK to seek treatment. This must be part of a larger national discussion.
But what to do about the veteran that needs assistance now? Family, neighbors and friends need to understand a bit of what the veteran is going through and what to expect.
After the initial celebration is over, most returning service men and women experience some sort of an emotional letdown. This is part of the transition back to everyday life. It can simply mean they are no longer operating in high gear and that things are beginning to settle down. Or, it can mean that their homecoming was not everything they had hoped it would be. Occasionally, the letdown can become a more serious problem that requires professional assistance.
Here are some signs that mean it’s time to get help:
- Long bouts of depression. If the veteran feels down for longer than two weeks or so, they may be clinically depressed. With clinical depression, people often feel hopeless, lack interest in day-to-day activities or loved ones, and experience changes in eating and sleeping habits. There may even be thoughts of death or suicide.
- Frequent bouts of anxiety or panic. Feeling afraid, even when there’s reason, is a normal reaction after experiencing extremely stressful events. But, when you still feel this way several weeks after the event, they may have something called an anxiety disorder.
- Flashbacks and frequent nightmares. Traumatic events, such as combat, often trigger nightmares and vivid, sudden memories called flashbacks. If they persist for several weeks or months, they may have post-traumatic stress disorder. It can make them feel indifferent, avoid people and responsibilities, become “jumpy,” or have panic attacks.
- Frequent alcohol and drug abuse. When people are in pain, they sometimes try to “self-medicate” with alcohol and drugs. This almost always results in even worse trouble.
- Domestic violence/abuse. When troubled by their feelings or experiences, they may feel like lashing out at your family members.
- Previous mental health problems or past trauma. They may experience the symptoms of a pre-existing disorder or see new ones emerge.
Veterans that are experiencing any of these dynamics should seek help. With professional treatment and support they can overcome these problems. Everyone needs help from time to time in dealing with the stresses of life… certainly, someone returning from the potentially brutal realities of active war duty would be no exception. It’s also best to act on these problems as early as possible. There are have many options to choose from including support groups, anger management classes, a faith leader, a service chaplain, a family services counselor or a mental health professional. Asking for help is not a sign of weakness.
The Mental Health Association of Essex County, an approved Tri-Care provider (the insurance carrier for veterans) stands ready to help. If you are veteran or a family member please reach out to us at 973-509-9777 or www.MHAEssex.org.
Several veterans have told me that they are more comfortable speaking with another veteran concerning these issues. Fortunately our colleagues at UMDNJ-University Behavioral Healthcare coordinate a cutting edge, national veterans mental health service called Vet2Vet. This important service is a 24 hour/7-day a week helpline that features peer counseling, clinical assessments, and assistance to family members. The helpline provides New Jersey veterans with access to a comprehensive support network of mental health professionals who specialize in issues specific to veterans returning to civilian life. They can be reached at 1-866-838-7654 (1-866-VETS-NJ-4).
Whomever you choose to call you will find the help you need. To our returning military personnel, I would say “You served us… if you are struggling at all… please let us serve you.