PTSD following Military Service

PTSD as a result of Military Service

Military personnel deal with intense levels of pressure and the sort of harsh realities that most civilians can’t begin to imagine. This leaves them highly vulnerable to the debilitating impact of post-traumatic stress disorder.

It is common to think of PTSD in terms of veterans who have lived through life-threatening situations, after serving in war zones and operating at the frontline. Soldiers returning from the second world war were described as being “shell shocked”. The stereotypical portrayal of this in films and television programmes would be someone suffering from breakdowns which are triggered by loud noises and threat of attack.

The sad fact is that this is not a full picture of what post-traumatic stress disorder is, and how it affects armed forces veterans and serving personnel.

Trauma in all its guises

PTSD is sometimes triggered by a single traumatic incident. However, it can also come from a culmination of highly disturbing events. Being regularly involved in deeply troubling situations creates a level of tension that becomes unbearable. This is why someone who is sexually abused or physically assaulted repeatedly as a child, can have PTSD.

PTSD in the military is often referred to as “combat stress”. It is often linked to individuals fearing for their life or seeing others killed and hurt in explosions, for example.

However, it is important to understand that feeling “unsafe” or deeply distressed, and therefore suffering from PTSD, can also arise from other situations.

Military personnel are often called in to help during the worst human tragedies and the bleakest natural disasters. If you are a soldier digging bodies from the rubble, or retrieving the dead from flood waters, though your own safety is assured, you are dealing with a constant assault on your mental and emotional resilience. They also often deal with the victim’s family and friends, who have lost loved ones in horrific circumstances.

On a daily basis, the armed forces can be physically and mentally stretched by the sort of tasks that few people can face for even a few minutes. For some, the damage of this level of stress and distress is immeasurable.

Mental Health and the military

With this in mind, it is not surprising that PTSD is so common in serving personnel and those who have left the armed services. According to the US Department of Veterans Affairs, the figure could be eight out of every 100 veterans.

Studies in the UK have explored the whole topic of the “mental health crisis in the military”. One piece of research involved 10,000 people currently in the armed forces. Of those surveyed, 4% reported probable PTSD, while 19.7% reported other common mental disorders. There were also 13% who admitted to alcohol misuse.

The taboos surrounding PTSD can leave some military personnel unable to speak out or unaware of how to get help.

In the words of the NHS: “the culture of the armed forces can make seeking help for a mental health problem appear difficult.”

There is also a possibility that symptoms start to emerge some years after people leave their military career. Other veterans valiantly try to cope, concerned that they may be judged, or appear a “nuisance”.

Possibly this is compounded if the individual hasn’t served in combat positions. They feel “frauds” by admitting to recurrent nightmares, depression and seemingly erratic behaviour and moods, arising from what they have seen and done.

When it all gets too much

Tragically, some take drastic action to end the misery of PTSD.

According to one news report in 2018 there were 71 active and retired military personnel in the UK who took their own lives. To put that in context, it is larger number of deaths in one year than the total figure for battlefield fatalities during a decade of the 13-year British military occupation of Afghanistan.

How many more suicides go unreported and how many people struggle on a daily basis, due to what they have seen or done in the course of their career?

Managing military personnel exposure to trauma and disturbing situations is difficult. More work to support them immediately afterwards is imperative. Then, meaningful and specialist PTSD help for armed forces veterans should be comprehensive and readily available.

REFERENCES: Mental Health, NHS, ITV

Treatments for PTSD

It is possible for PTSD to be successfully treated many years after the traumatic event occurred, which means it is never too late to seek help. For some, the first step may be watchful waiting, then exploring therapeutic options such as individual or group therapy – but the main treatment options in the UK are psychological treatments such as Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprogramming (EMDR) and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).

Traumatic events can be very difficult to come to terms with, but confronting and understanding your feelings and seeking professional help is often the only way of effectively treating PTSD. You can find out more in the links below, or here.

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