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The Importance of PTSD Awareness Month

The Importance of PTSD Awareness Month

contributed by Melissa Lucas, Senior Staff Writer

The goal of PTSD Awareness Month is to “raise public awareness about issues related to PTSD, reduce the stigma associated with PTSD, and ensure that those suffering from the invisible wounds of war receive proper treatment.” S RES 481

What is PTSD?

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is psychological condition triggered by a traumatic event. Usually this trauma involves witnessing or experiencing the threat of injury or death. 

PTSD has been plaguing trauma victims forever. It wasn’t until the early 1900’s that the disorder became widely recognized. That is when the term “shell shock” was used to describe the psychiatric symptoms often experienced by veterans of World War I. 

In the years since, terms describing these symptoms have evolved. In 1980, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder became an officially recognized diagnosis within the medical community. 

History of PTSD Awareness Month 

In 2010 Senator Kent Conrad advocated for an official PTSD Awareness Day. This was in response to the suicide of Staff Sergeant Joe Biel in 2007. Not long after, Biel’s birthday (June 27th), was selected as the official PTSD Awareness Day.

In 2014, the Senate passed Resolution 481, which officially declared June as National PTSD Awareness Month

A Few PTSD Statistics

Nearly 20% of those who experience a trauma will develop PTSD. At this time, it is estimated that 7 million Americans have been diagnosed with the disorder. Since many PTSD sufferers do not seek professional help, it is likely that the actual numbers are significantly higher.

What Causes PTSD?

During a traumatic experience, the sympathetic nervous system releases adrenaline and other stress hormones. These hormones make it easier to fight or flee. Pupils dilate, resulting in improved visual acuity. Heart rate increases, flooding the circulatory system with additional oxygen. Blood flow is directed towards large muscles, providing a few moments of extra strength and speed.

Once the threat passes, a separate set of hormones is released that return everything to normal. Senses dull, heart rate slows, blood is again directed towards internal organs.  

PTSD symptoms develop when stress hormones remain present for longer than normal. In this case, the body is unable to return to baseline. Human physiology is simply not equipped to withstand a heighted level of arousal for long periods of time.

So given the exact same trauma, what causes one person develop PTSD while another does not? At this time, the specific mechanism that prevents some people from “coming down” is not clearly understood. However, it seems likely that there are several physiological factors at play. 

Scientists continue research to determine who is at greatest risk of PTSD. Extensions of these findings may eventually aid in the creation of both PTSD treatment as well as interventions which prevent or reduce the severity of PTSD symptoms before they occur.

Examples of Trauma that Can Lead to PTSD

The official PTSD definition can be a little misleading with its reference to the threat of injury or death. This is because the way a person perceives a traumatic situation determines whether they are at risk for developing PTSD. Meaning, it doesn’t matter whether a person’s life was actually at risk. It matters whether they believe it was. 

Any and all types of trauma have the potential to cause PTSD, but several types of trauma are more likely to lead to a PTSD diagnosis than others. These include:

  • Physical Abuse
  • Sexual Abuse
  • War-related trauma
  • Unexpected death of a loved one
  • Life-threatening illness

PTSD Symptoms

The early signs of PTSD can be easy to miss. Learning how to help someone with PTSD, or even simply identify symptoms, begins with recognition. This is why PTSD Awareness Month is so vital to the mental health of veterans and civilians alike.

Symptoms of PTSD generally develop within three months of a traumatic event. There are several types of PTSD symptoms, most of which fall into one of four categories. 

Reliving the event 

This can come in many forms including flashbacks, repeated memories or nightmares, even adverse reactions to events which remind a person of their trauma. 

Avoidance 

Avoidance may mean general detachment, but often describes an inability to remember all or part of the traumatic event. It can also mean avoiding circumstances which elicit memories of the event itself. 

Alterations in arousal or reactivity

Someone who struggles with altered arousal might startle easily, find it difficult to concentrate, experience outbursts of anger, or remain hypervigilant at all times. 

Negative alterations in mood

Depressed mood and persistent guilt are common among PTSD sufferers. Mood alterations may result in social withdrawal and can have a negative impact on day-to-day functions.

Along with psychological symptoms, there are a few physical PTSD symptoms to be aware of as well:

  • Agitation 
  • Excitability
  • Dizziness 
  • Headache

PTSD Diagnosis

There are several factors involved in diagnosing PTSD. Criteria include the type of symptoms, how long they’ve been going on, and their overall impact. Only a doctor can provide an official diagnosis, so it’s important to discuss all PTSD symptoms with a healthcare professional. 

PTSD Treatment

Treatment is available, even for those who have been living with PTSD for years. Of course, the first step to treating PTSD is receiving an accurate diagnosis. 

Psychological Treatment

It is important that trauma survivors manage their feelings and emotional experiences. Counselling, psychotherapy, and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) all have their place in an effective PTSD treatment plan. 

Chemical Treatment

Medications can be used to manage PTSD symptoms, too. Most fall into the category of anti-depressant or anti-anxiety prescription drugs. It’s important to note that every person responds differently to medications. Patience is key, as it can take a bit of trial and error to develop an effective drug protocol. 

Physical Treatment

It’s no secret that physical activity can improve the quality of life for those who live with a psychological disorder. Movement helps the body produce anti-depressant and anti-stress hormones. For this reason, physical activity is especially helpful for PTSD patients.

PTSD in Veterans

While the symptoms of PTSD in veterans don’t differ from those in civilians, military personnel are much more likely to develop PTSD in general. Veterans who were stationed in combat zones, were injured in the line of duty, or who had tours longer than one year are more likely to develop PTSD. 

By destigmatizing the disorder and bringing awareness to its symptoms, PTSD Awareness Month aims to ensure that our service men and women who suffer from PTSD have effective support systems and treatment options available.

PTSD Resources

If you believe you or someone you know may be suffering with PTSD, it is important to seek professional medical help. In addition, the following resources may be of value:

 

PTSD Service Dogs

It’s no surprise that dogs can soothe us when we feel troubled. But research shows bonding with dogs has positive benefits even on a biological level. Dogs elevate levels of the hormone oxytocin in our bodies, which promotes feelings of trust and well being. Oxytocin also heightens the ability to interpret facial expressions, helps one overcome paranoia and can have positive effects on social interactions.

A specially trained PTSD service dog can provide an extra sense of security and have a calming effect on veterans, help with episodes of depression, anxiety, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as well as being loving companions. These dogs can sense a PTSD veteran’s mood and will know when it’s a difficult day for their veteran, sometimes before the veteran may even fully realize their own emotional state. Additionally, these service dogs are trained by qualified organizations to respond to a PTSD episode and help bring their humans back to a relaxed and coherent state. 

 

Experts agree that approximately 20% of veterans experience PTSD after their time serving on the front lines of the military no matter their branch of service. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is defined as a mental health condition triggered by a terrifyingly traumatic event – either witnessing it or experiencing it. Symptoms may include flashbacks and nightmares, severe anxiety and uncontrollable thoughts related to the event…and those are just a few of the symptoms and challenges veterans surviving with PTSD face each and every day.

 

From the VA, “Veterans with substantial mobility limitations associated with a mental health disorder, PTSD,  for which a service dog has been identified as the optimal way to address the mobility impairment may be eligible for  veterinary health benefits through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Mental Health Mobility Service Dog Initiative. A diagnosis of substantial mobility limitation indicates that most common life and work activities (i.e., leaving the house, or getting to medical appointments, using public transportation, etc.) are impaired or prevented for the person more than half the time. Under the Mental Health Mobility Service Dog Initiative, this benefit has been offered for Veterans with a mental health condition. It provides comprehensive coverage for the canine’s health and wellness and any prescription medications necessary to enable the dog to perform its duties in service to the Veteran.” 

 

While the VA does not pay for the adoption or purchase of a trained service dog, there are many organizations whose mission is to help veterans obtain and learn to work with these canine companions. The VA, however, does provide, for qualifying veterans living with PTSD, a Veterinary Health Benefit and equipment for the working life of the trained PTSD service dog. This benefit is administered via the Offices of Mental Health Services and Prosthetic and Sensory Aids Service at [email protected] and once a veteran is approved they are directed to an ADI-accredited agency to apply for a service dog. The VA does NOT pay for grooming, boarding, food or other routine expenses associated with dog ownership.

 

Among the many reputable and amazing organizations dedicated to helping match veterans with highly-skilled service dogs, including specialized PTSD service dogs, is K9s for Warriors. K9s for Warriors rescues and trains shelter dogs to be paired as service dogs for warriors with service-connected PostTraumatic Stress Disorder, traumatic brain injury and/or military sexual Trauma.The goal of their work is helping to end veteran suicide and return our nation’s brave veterans to a life of independence and dignity. They are the nation’s largest provider of service dogs for disabled American veterans. To date, the organization has rescued over 1,000 shelter dogs and paired them with over 600 veterans in need. 

The non-profit organization provides PTSD service dogs of the highest quality at no cost to those participating in the  program in order to help restore their physical and emotional independence.  Their focus is on healing – helping the veteran and paired service dog build a bond to facilitate healing and recovery.  As the healing takes place, the reintegration to society begins. Warriors can return to their communities with a new “leash” on life as productive citizens who make a positive difference. After completing their three-week training program the veterans have gained the emotional means to repair their relationship with themselves, their families and their friends. 

Roughly 90% of their service dogs come from shelters or are owner-surrendered. Instead of a life of abandonment or euthanasia, they are given a new purpose.  With each graduate pair, K9’s for Warriors save two lives; they rescue the dog, and the dog rescues the warrior. 

Currently, K9’s for Warriors works exclusively with veterans disabled serving during or after 9/11/01. While the disability does not need to be combat related, applicants must have a verified, clinical diagnosis of PTSD, TBI, or MST to qualify for the program. At this time, K9s For Warriors does not provide Service Dogs to individuals who are legally blind or hearing impaired. They accept applications from all 50 states. Before being matched with their new PTSD service dog, applicants participate in a phone interview to assess their needs, discuss their lifestyle, work environment, personality and family. Veterans also must agree to a background check before acceptance into the program and meeting their dog. Experts working with the organization pair candidates with the service dog best suited for them. Veterans do not get to choose their dog nor supply their own dog to the K9s for Warriors for training.  

Once accepted, the training program takes 21 days to complete. Veterans travel to one of the organization’s two campuses in Florida for the duration of the training. Since this is a full immersion program, veterans stay and have their meals at the campus. During this three week period humans and canines learn to work together and bond to each other in order to effectively mitigate the precise needs of the veteran. 

 

PTSD service dogs can be specifically trained to calm their veteran when they are having a flashback or panic attack, use their bodies to prevent their veteran from feeling anxious and uncomfortable when out in society and alert them to sounds and lights that may go unnoticed when they are in the midst of an episode, like a smoke or house alarm.They can remind their veteran to take their medications, provide emotional support that may help lower instances of substance abuse and so much more. Many people, veterans living with PTSD, and otherwise find comfort in the unconditional love a dog provides and have an easier time allowing them to provide that comfort, companionship and assistance than with another person aiding them. 

For more information about the K9’s for Warriors organization,  visit https://www.k9sforwarriors.org/