Causes of PTSD: Military personnel and Veterans

Causes of PTSD: Military personnel and Veterans experiences

Military personnel deal with intense levels of pressure and the sort of harsh realities that many people can’t begin to imagine. This leaves them highly vulnerable to the debilitating impact of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and Complex PTSD (C-PTSD) and the symptoms it brings.

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 PTSD 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. This is why anyone who has experienced a trauma or traumatic events can develop PTSD or C-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. However, military personnel are often also 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 and C-PTSD is common in serving personnel and those who have left the armed services. Statistics vary and many cases go unreported, but  a study of 10,000 ex-Service personnel conducted by the King’s Centre for Military Health Research (KCMHR) found that PTSD rates were low among British forces, with a prevalence rate of 4% in deployed personnel and 6% in combat troops. Research has also shown that ‘former military personnel who deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan were more likely to report the symptoms of PTSD. For veterans who deployed the rate was 9.4%, compared with 5% among those who did not participate in the two conflicts’. 

Other studies in the UK have explored the 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, although recent statistics do show that more and more serving personnel are seeking help for their mental health issues (seen in the graph here).

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.

Tragically, some people 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. 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.

Where to get help

As a serving person or reservist, there are many people you can talk to, including:

  • Defence Medical Services (DMS) medical officers and GPs
  • welfare officers
  • your chain of command
  • Trauma Risk Management (TRiM) practitioners
  • chaplains

They can talk to you about your mental health and help you get further support if you feel you need it. If you need them, your DMS GP may refer you to specialist mental health services. These services are all commissioned by the Ministry of Defence (MoD).

Additionally, PTSD UK is here to support everyone affected by PTSD, no matter the trauma that caused it, but there are also some Veteran Specific charities in the UK who can provide additional assistance such as:

  • Combat Stress are the UK’s leading charity for veterans’ mental health. They help former servicemen and women with mental health problems such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety and depression. They provide specialist treatment and support for veterans from every service and conflict, focusing on those with complex mental health issues. If you’re currently serving or have served in the UK Armed Forces, you can call their 24-hour mental health helpline. The helpline is available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year for veterans and their families. If you need support please call 0800 138 1619. Serving personnel and their families can call 0800 323 4444 and find out more on combatstress.org
  • Help for Heroes Serving in the Armed Forces takes strength, but it takes a different kind of strength to live with life-changing injuries. Every course and activity we offer aims to empower veterans to look beyond illness and injury, regain their purpose and reach their potential. If you are living with anxiety and stress, are struggling financially, or just need a listening ear, they can help. Start your recovery journey today. helpforheroes.org.uk/get-support/get-support-today
  • PTSD Resolution provide counselling for former armed forces, reservists & families. For free, immediate help call 0300 302 0551 or visit ptsdresolution.org
  • Phoenix Heroes support veterans dealing with PTSD. We work alongside local organisations and professionals and act as a support platform to place veterans and families on outdoor group activity projects. They now have a strong support structure to help our homeless veterans too. They also offer training courses and seasonal employment opportunities across the spectrum of the event industry. phoenixheroes.co.uk
  • SSAFA support covers both regulars and reserves in the Royal Navy, the Royal Marines, the British Army and the Royal Air Force and their families, including anyone who has completed National Service. They are all entitled to lifelong support from SSAFA, no matter how long they have served. Call their Forces line on 0800 260 6767. They are open 09:00 – 17:30, Monday to Friday.
  • Launchpad provides safe, secure accommodation and other essential support to 80 veterans at any one time from two houses, to help them make a successful transition to civilian life. For most veterans, the transition from the armed forces to civilian life is smooth but more often than not, those few who can’t resettle easily face challenges such as homelessness, poverty, mental and physical health issues, addictions, broken families and unemployment.   Since 2013, Launchpad has supported over 500 veterans by supporting, developing and helping them to live independently. www.veteranslaunchpad.org.uk

It’s important to note, that while choosing your PTSD recovery path you need to address both the symptoms and the underlying condition. NICE guidance updated in 2018 recommends the use of trauma focused psychological treatments for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in adults, specifically the use of Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprocessing (EMDR) and trauma focused cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).

Please remember, these aren’t meant to be medical recommendations, but they’re tactics that have worked for others and might work for you, too. Be sure to work with a professional to find the best methods for you.

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