DoD Observes National PTSD Awareness Day

Today’s National Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Awareness Day observance reflects how PTSD became known as an “invisible wound of war” during more than a decade of combat, a Defense Health Agency official said.

John Davison, a clinical psychologist and chief of condition-based specialty care in DHA’s clinical support division, said in a June 24 DoD News interview that it’s important to recognize PTSD’s signs and symptoms. 

“We know a lot more about PTSD today than we did after previous wars, such as Vietnam,” Davison said, noting that symptoms of PTSD have existed in every war in American history. 

The Senate established PTSD Awareness Day in 2010 following then-Sen. Kent Conrad’s efforts to designate a day of awareness as tribute to Army Staff Sgt. Joe Biel of the North Dakota National Guard, Davison said. Biel suffered from PTSD and took his life in April 2007 after returning to North Dakota following his second tour of duty in the Iraq War. 

Biel’s birthday, June 27, was chosen to mark PTSD Awareness Day and honor his memory.

“It’s important to know that deploying to a combat zone does not necessarily cause one to [develop] PTSD,” Davison said. “The vast majority who deploy in dangerous situations do not develop PTSD.”

Know PTSD Symptoms

Nonetheless, service members, veterans and their family members and friends should learn to recognize the signs and symptoms of PTSD, he added.

 “PTSD has an identifiable cause, which is experiencing or witnessing a significant trauma,” he said. “The disorder is treatable at any stage, whether it’s an early or late onset [or] a severe or a mild case,” Davison explained. People who might have symptoms should get treatment early, he said, before symptoms worsen or they turn to unhealthy ways of coping with the symptoms, such as abusing alcohol or drugs. 

Returning service members might not talk about traumatizing experiences, Davison acknowledged, but he noted that others around them might recognize hallmark symptoms. Signs of PTSD, he said, can include re-experiencing the trauma, avoiding reminders of the trauma, and disturbances in thoughts or moods.

Some have a tendency to isolate themselves, withdraw from trauma reminders and avoid public places such as malls and large events, Davison said. Some people with PTSD might emotionally detach or become estranged from people to whom they were once close, he added. 

Signs of ‘Survivor Guilt’

Others might allude to blaming themselves for a trauma experienced by someone else, which is called “survivor guilt,” Davison said. “If someone close died as result of trauma, those with PTSD might wonder, ‘Why him and not me?’” he said.

Another category of symptoms features hyperactivity -- the person remains “on guard,” has angry outbursts, problems with sleep, and reckless or self-destructive behavior, Davison said.

 Successful Treatments Vary

 The good news is that DoD and the Veterans Affairs Department have gone to great lengths to increase access to evidence-based treatment for PTSD, Davison said.

“The Army has embedded [behavioral health] providers close to operational units to increase access to help and decrease stigma some might feel [about] pursuing mental health treatment or counseling,” he said. “We have a number of effective treatments available that have demonstrated through research to be helpful.”

Treatments range from various psychotherapy approaches to pharmacotherapy -- using “very safe, common medications for depression and anxiety” that can accompany disorder symptoms, Davison said.

Counseling is available from an individual’s primary care doctor, and they also can talk to a behavioral health provider, he said. Counseling also is available from a behavioral health specialty clinic, he added, and nonclinical settings where people can talk to a chaplain or access help from Military OneSource or VA’s readjustment counseling services.

Those feeling acutely distressed should call the Military/Veterans Crisis Line, Davison said. The hotline is available at 800-273-8255 -- press 1 or text 838255.

(Follow Terri Moon Cronk on Twitter: @MoonCronkDoD)