When Will America Get Serious about Addressing PTSD in Veterans?

The past is the past – and there's no sense in rehashing all of the disasters that took place during Barack Obama's eight-year term – but it's impossible to understand where things stand today without acknowledging that the former president made numerous decisions that compromised, weakened, or failed to protect military personnel and veterans in their most critical times of need. 

From limiting the authorization of adequate personnel on numerous campaigns to prematurely withdrawing troops and reversing much of the progress made in Iraq, he made a number of questionable calls.  (And, quite frankly, his predecessor, George W. Bush, made even more errors in his two terms leading up to the Obama presidency.)

But Obama's biggest shortcomings had nothing to do with the deployment and withdrawal of troops overseas.  It could be argued that his greatest military failure was his lack of attention given to veterans – particularly as it pertained to physical and mental health needs.

Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, as it's commonly known, is unfortunately rampant in many of today's veterans.  While Obama did little more than pay lip service to the underlying issue, President Donald Trump has a chance to pivot and make headway.

The question is, what, if anything, can be done from a government-administrative level to help veterans in this area?

Understanding PTSD: Causes, Symptoms, and Risks

PTSD is classified as a psychiatric disorder that can occur after an individual experiences a life-threatening or traumatic incident.  According to Resurgence Behavioral Health, which commonly works with people suffering from PTSD symptoms, the most common causes include suffering or witnessing an injury or accident, experiencing a dangerous situation, witnessing a death, experiencing or watching someone go through a life-threatening illness, and surviving a natural disaster.

"Although PTSD symptoms can begin right after a traumatic event, PTSD is not diagnosed unless the symptoms last for at least one month, and either cause significant distress or interfere with work or home life," the Nebraska Department of Veterans' Affairs explains.  "In order to be diagnosed with PTSD, a person must have three different types of symptoms: re-experiencing symptoms, avoidance and numbing symptoms, and arousal symptoms."

  • Re-experiencing symptoms.  These are symptoms in which the individual relives the traumatic event through memories, daydreams, or night terrors.  Sometimes the re-experiencing happens as the result of a trigger, and other times, it's quite random.
  • Avoidance and numbing symptoms.  Because of the severity of re-experiencing symptoms, many PTSD-sufferers – particularly those who have seen atrocities on the battlefield – turn to things that help them avoid or numb the pain.  This may include drugs, alcohol, and extreme isolation.
  • Arousal symptoms.  Many people are on high alert after experiencing a traumatic event.  This often leads to difficulty sleeping, sudden outbursts of anger, and trouble concentrating.

According to the National Center for PTSD, 60 percent of men and 50 percent of women experience at least one traumatic event in their lives.  Roughly 7-8 percent of the general population will have PTSD for a period of time.

For combat veterans, the numbers are much higher.  Somewhere between 11 and 20 percent of veterans from Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom, 12 percent of Gulf War veterans, and 15 percent of Vietnam War veterans suffer from PTSD in a given year.

What Can Be Done to Address PTSD?

In other words, this isn't a small problem – it's a major issue with huge ramifications for the state of mental health in America.  The problem is that neither the Defense Department nor the Department of Veterans Affairs has done much about it in the past.

According to a report during Obama's second term, the government spent $3 billion on PTSD treatment for veterans and $294 million more for service members.  Despite this, here's what the results from a 301-page report suggested: "[b]oth departments lack a coordinated, consistent, well-developed, evidence-based system of treatment for PTSD."

We need an administration that will deal with the problem head on.  Is there a correct way to move forward?  There might not be one correct method, but there are certainly actionable steps that haven't been taken in the past that can be taken now.

  • Drug-free (when possible).  There are many PTSD-sufferers who need medication in order to keep serious symptoms at bay, but our current health care system spends far too much energy and money medicating PTSD, as opposed to addressing the underlying causes.  When possible, it would be wise for the V.A. to invest in stronger therapy programs for veterans.
  • Use technology.  Many PTSD-sufferers don't have the motivation or desire to reach out and get help.  Others don't have access to therapists or may not even know they have PTSD.  The National Center for PTSD has partnered with the V.A. to create phone-based apps and tools that help sufferers deal with their symptoms 24-7-365.  This is a tremendous step in the pursuit of modernization.
  • Social connections.  Sufferers from PTSD are prone to isolation.  This often leads them to feeling as though they're the only people in the world going through these symptoms.  One way to override this is by creating more opportunities for combat veterans to connect with others who are going through similar issues and symptoms.  Greater promotion of existing PTSD support groups – as well as the formation of new ones – would be a step in the right direction.
  • Alternative treatment research.  Instead of pouring all PTSD funding into drug research, it would be nice to allocate a percentage of this money toward research on alternative treatment methods like meditation, acupuncture, transcranial magnetic stimulation, and hyperbaric oxygen therapy.  With a greater understanding of these treatments, more veterans can get the care they need.

These are just a few ideas, but there's ample opportunity for strides to be made.  And in a political climate where the left and right are constantly screaming bloody murder at one another, better mental health care for our veterans is a bipartisan issue that can gain support on both sides of the proverbial party line.

Now's the Time to Act

There's no policy or executive action that can put an end to PTSD.  Whether it's in combat veterans or private citizens, traumatic events happen, and every person has different short-term and long-term reactions.  The goal isn't to "solve" PTSD – it's to give our veterans the care they need and deserve so that they can be reintegrated into society and enjoy the happy and healthy lives they deserve.

The past is the past – and there's no sense in rehashing all of the disasters that took place during Barack Obama's eight-year term – but it's impossible to understand where things stand today without acknowledging that the former president made numerous decisions that compromised, weakened, or failed to protect military personnel and veterans in their most critical times of need. 

From limiting the authorization of adequate personnel on numerous campaigns to prematurely withdrawing troops and reversing much of the progress made in Iraq, he made a number of questionable calls.  (And, quite frankly, his predecessor, George W. Bush, made even more errors in his two terms leading up to the Obama presidency.)

But Obama's biggest shortcomings had nothing to do with the deployment and withdrawal of troops overseas.  It could be argued that his greatest military failure was his lack of attention given to veterans – particularly as it pertained to physical and mental health needs.

Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, as it's commonly known, is unfortunately rampant in many of today's veterans.  While Obama did little more than pay lip service to the underlying issue, President Donald Trump has a chance to pivot and make headway.

The question is, what, if anything, can be done from a government-administrative level to help veterans in this area?

Understanding PTSD: Causes, Symptoms, and Risks

PTSD is classified as a psychiatric disorder that can occur after an individual experiences a life-threatening or traumatic incident.  According to Resurgence Behavioral Health, which commonly works with people suffering from PTSD symptoms, the most common causes include suffering or witnessing an injury or accident, experiencing a dangerous situation, witnessing a death, experiencing or watching someone go through a life-threatening illness, and surviving a natural disaster.

"Although PTSD symptoms can begin right after a traumatic event, PTSD is not diagnosed unless the symptoms last for at least one month, and either cause significant distress or interfere with work or home life," the Nebraska Department of Veterans' Affairs explains.  "In order to be diagnosed with PTSD, a person must have three different types of symptoms: re-experiencing symptoms, avoidance and numbing symptoms, and arousal symptoms."

  • Re-experiencing symptoms.  These are symptoms in which the individual relives the traumatic event through memories, daydreams, or night terrors.  Sometimes the re-experiencing happens as the result of a trigger, and other times, it's quite random.
  • Avoidance and numbing symptoms.  Because of the severity of re-experiencing symptoms, many PTSD-sufferers – particularly those who have seen atrocities on the battlefield – turn to things that help them avoid or numb the pain.  This may include drugs, alcohol, and extreme isolation.
  • Arousal symptoms.  Many people are on high alert after experiencing a traumatic event.  This often leads to difficulty sleeping, sudden outbursts of anger, and trouble concentrating.

According to the National Center for PTSD, 60 percent of men and 50 percent of women experience at least one traumatic event in their lives.  Roughly 7-8 percent of the general population will have PTSD for a period of time.

For combat veterans, the numbers are much higher.  Somewhere between 11 and 20 percent of veterans from Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom, 12 percent of Gulf War veterans, and 15 percent of Vietnam War veterans suffer from PTSD in a given year.

What Can Be Done to Address PTSD?

In other words, this isn't a small problem – it's a major issue with huge ramifications for the state of mental health in America.  The problem is that neither the Defense Department nor the Department of Veterans Affairs has done much about it in the past.

According to a report during Obama's second term, the government spent $3 billion on PTSD treatment for veterans and $294 million more for service members.  Despite this, here's what the results from a 301-page report suggested: "[b]oth departments lack a coordinated, consistent, well-developed, evidence-based system of treatment for PTSD."

We need an administration that will deal with the problem head on.  Is there a correct way to move forward?  There might not be one correct method, but there are certainly actionable steps that haven't been taken in the past that can be taken now.

  • Drug-free (when possible).  There are many PTSD-sufferers who need medication in order to keep serious symptoms at bay, but our current health care system spends far too much energy and money medicating PTSD, as opposed to addressing the underlying causes.  When possible, it would be wise for the V.A. to invest in stronger therapy programs for veterans.
  • Use technology.  Many PTSD-sufferers don't have the motivation or desire to reach out and get help.  Others don't have access to therapists or may not even know they have PTSD.  The National Center for PTSD has partnered with the V.A. to create phone-based apps and tools that help sufferers deal with their symptoms 24-7-365.  This is a tremendous step in the pursuit of modernization.
  • Social connections.  Sufferers from PTSD are prone to isolation.  This often leads them to feeling as though they're the only people in the world going through these symptoms.  One way to override this is by creating more opportunities for combat veterans to connect with others who are going through similar issues and symptoms.  Greater promotion of existing PTSD support groups – as well as the formation of new ones – would be a step in the right direction.
  • Alternative treatment research.  Instead of pouring all PTSD funding into drug research, it would be nice to allocate a percentage of this money toward research on alternative treatment methods like meditation, acupuncture, transcranial magnetic stimulation, and hyperbaric oxygen therapy.  With a greater understanding of these treatments, more veterans can get the care they need.

These are just a few ideas, but there's ample opportunity for strides to be made.  And in a political climate where the left and right are constantly screaming bloody murder at one another, better mental health care for our veterans is a bipartisan issue that can gain support on both sides of the proverbial party line.

Now's the Time to Act

There's no policy or executive action that can put an end to PTSD.  Whether it's in combat veterans or private citizens, traumatic events happen, and every person has different short-term and long-term reactions.  The goal isn't to "solve" PTSD – it's to give our veterans the care they need and deserve so that they can be reintegrated into society and enjoy the happy and healthy lives they deserve.