Shell shock, combat neurosis, post traumatic stress disorder – whatever you call it, the psychological effects of war are real, yet often misunderstood and stigmatized. Although awareness for veterans’ mental health has increased significantly in recent years, there is still room for improvement. Only 8 percent of veterans are being treated for the disorder, despite a VA study that says many more have it.
Psychological problems were first noticed amidst the horrors of World War I and were collectively called shell shock. Wholly misunderstood then, PTSD is marked by anxiety, flashbacks, emotional detachment and many other symptoms. Dr. Lori Davis, associate chief of staff for research and development at the Tuscaloosa VA Medical Center, said PTSD wasn’t even officially a diagnosis until 1980.
Dodds Fletcher, a retired first sergeant in the Army, served across the world from 1986 to 2010 and is being treated for PTSD. He claims much of the stigma towards seeking treatment is the result of the culture in the Army.
“I was raised in an Army that, you know, if you literally broke your toe or broke your finger but you could still go, you were expected ... to brush it off, and move on,” Fletcher said. “You’re looked down upon for going to sick call, even if you’re injured. I’m sure that still happens today.”
Despite progress towards acceptance in the Army, Fletcher maintains that some ideals of “proper” behavior remain.
“To a certain extent there’s kind of a hierarchy of what’s considered a ... tougher tier of people,” Fletcher said. “In those groups of people it’s still ‘dude, are you going to talk to somebody, are you crying at night, are you having nightmares,’ you know, guys jokingly rib each other like that, but I don’t think it’s nearly what it used to be.”
In addition to ostracism from peers, Fletcher said many veterans are worried their careers and security clearance will suffer as a result of a PTSD diagnosis. Although this problem has improved in the past 10 years, there are still risks involved.
“The mental health aspect of it, forever, has been worse than that,” Fletcher said. “I’m gonna say 90 percent of my buddies have [PTSD] and only 20 percent do something about it. I would say it wasn’t until 2007 to 2009 that you saw a change in the climate that it was actually encouraged ... to go speak to somebody. I would like to think there would be no ramifications, but I would have to say that there probably are.”
Even with these changes, Fletcher remarks upon the difficulty he had in overcoming the stigma.
“It took me several years after I retired before I decided that I needed to seek some mental health counseling ... I got to a point in my life where I knew if I was going to continue living, I needed to change something,” Fletcher said. “It was very well-ingrained into my Army DNA.”
The stigma towards those with PTSD is also present in the civilian realm. E. J. Hardin, an Iraq combat veteran who graduated from the University last May, believes that the media has contributed greatly to misconceptions about suffering veterans.
“News media often reports selective suicide stories that involve homicide as it increases ratings ... These negative stereotypes can be attributed to young veterans who see them in the news and can cause them to refuse seeking help due to them not wanting to be perceived as an immediate threat to themselves and those around them,” Hardin said.
These stereotypes are carried over into the workplace, where coworkers might be scared of working with those diagnosed with PTSD.
“The stigma is that they will become unpredictably violent, which is only a rare occurrence,” Davis said.
The combination of all these factors unfortunately results in many veterans self-medicating with alcohol, recreational drugs and pain medications. Fletcher believes that many veterans are reluctant to seek treatment because they don’t trust those who don’t have war experience.
“Veterans are a very unique breed of people,” Fletcher said. “We don’t listen to like a civilian ... we listen to one of our buddies say ‘dude, I was exactly where you are right now two years ago and I didn’t think I needed help, but I bit the bullet ... and got help at the VA. My life is better for it now.’ We want to hear it from each other, people we trust.”
He added many veterans are skeptical of the VA because it has been negatively portrayed in the past. Although Fletcher admits some of the criticisms are valid, he assures others that the Tuscaloosa VA Medical Center is stellar and encourages others to seek help.
“Although it can be debilitating, you can overcome it to a certain extent,” Fletcher said. “You can let it bother you 23 hours and 45 minutes every day or you can seek treatment and hopefully it’ll only bother you for 12 hours and 30 min every day, and then hopefully you can get it to where it only bothers you for 2 or 3 hours a day ... so you’re not constantly sucked into this horrible hole of whatever, you can call it a bunch of different things. And just constantly thinking about the things you saw and the things that happened to you and your buddies. You learn through proper therapies and counseling ... you have to want to do it, that’s the most important part.”
Hardin said after returning from service, many veterans feel like they have no place in civilian society and thus struggle to transition – the VA seeks to help with that.
“People have to adapt to a life after trauma and what we are really trying to focus on is maximum recovery,” Davis said. “We want to assist the veteran in treatment to regain occupational and educational function. Most veterans with PTSD can go to school or work on their own, but many need assistance with combining treatment, medicine and counseling with their education or occupation.”
In the midst of the many misconceptions and stereotypes surrounding PTSD and its treatment, Fletcher stressed education more than anything as the gateway towards improving veterans’ treatment and lives.
“It’s all about ignorance ... we need to educate people,” Fletcher said. “They need advocates that are military that have those maladies that go around and talk to people about them.”