Learning About Effective PTSD Treatment for Veterans
About 7 out of 100 veterans develop post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD) in their lifetime. PTSD is a mental health condition that can develop after experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event. Feeling upset, having difficulty going to school or work or having sleep issues after trauma is normal. If you’re still having a difficult time after a month or longer, you may have PTSD.
“Sadly, many people still think that PTSD is not treatable and that if you serve in war and it's just the way you have to live,” says Weill Cornell Psychiatry at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center., founder and director of the Program for Anxiety and Traumatic Stress Studies (PATSS) at Weill Cornell Medical College. “That's a myth.”
If you have PTSD, treatment is available, including options tailored to veterans and other military service members.
Any person can develop PTSD. However, some factors increase the risk, including:
- An especially intense or long-lasting traumatic event
- Being injured during the event
- Specific types of trauma, including combat and serious accidents
PTSD symptoms differ between people. Symptoms may happen immediately after an event, take years to surface or come and go. Similarly, they may be mild, debilitating or vary over time.
Symptoms of PTSD may include:
- Avoiding activities, people, places or things that remind you of the event, such as crowds or TV shows about similar situations
- Being reminded of the event by things around you, such as fireworks or a news story
- Difficulty concentrating
- Feeling on edge or jittery
- Flashbacks, or feeling like you’re reliving the event
- Increased negative emotions or thoughts
- Not feeling like yourself
- Sleep issues
Veterans and PTSD
Veterans and other military service members often experience internal stigma when it comes to getting help for PTSD. When you’re used to protecting and taking care of others, it can be challenging to ask for support for yourself. Still, it’s crucial to remember you’re not alone. Seeking help is an act of courage, allowing you to reclaim your life and be present for those you love.
“If you can't do it for yourself, sometimes the other way I motivate people is to think of your children, your spouse or your other family members,” Difede says. “They'll feel better, too, when you're better.”
The Program for Anxiety and Traumatic Stress Studies
Some military service members avoid mental health services because they fear therapists won’t understand what they’ve been through. A specialized program for military service members, such as PATSS within the Department of Psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College, can lay this fear to rest.
“Our program offers treatment for the whole range of traumas, but we also have a specialty clinic for military service members of any duty status,” Difede says. “Our military service members are often more comfortable going to a place where they know people have worked with the military for decades, have done the work to become culturally competent with people who have served and have a deep connection and commitment to military service members.”
The mental health experts at PATSS offer specialized care customized to military service members of all duty statuses. They have pioneered treatment techniques centering the experiences and needs of military service members. Additionally, PATSS specialists lead clinical trials to improve or expand treatment options, including a current study comparing therapies to treat PTSD due to military sexual trauma.
Innovative and Tried-and-True Treatments Tailored to Veterans
Several treatments are available for PTSD. During your initial mental health assessment, a mental health professional will help you determine which treatment option is the best fit for you.
No matter the treatment type, the goals are to decrease symptoms and improve everyday functioning from school to work to relationships to enjoying a concert or restaurant.
Trauma-focused psychotherapy, or talk therapy, is the most effective treatment for PTSD. During sessions, a specially trained therapist works with you to talk through the memory of the traumatic event and your thoughts and feelings. Typically, you’ll meet with the therapist for eight to 16 sessions.
There are several types of psychotherapy used to treat PTSD, including:
- Cognitive processing therapy (CPT). In this type, you’ll learn more about your symptoms, recognize negative thought patterns and develop new ways to think about what happened to move forward.
- Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR). In EMDR, you'll choose one specific memory to focus on while also concentrating on a repetitive movement, such as a light, tap or tone.
- Prolonged exposure (PE). This type involves talking through trauma-related memories and slowly increasing exposure to emotions, situations or thoughts you’ve avoided due to PTSD.
Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy
Virtual reality (VR) exposure therapy pairs technology with traditional psychotherapy. Through the use of VR, you virtually revisit the event while working with your therapist.
“Through collaborations with other institutions and interviews with veterans and active duty service members about their experience, we developed two prototype VR environments,” Difede says. “The therapists can customize the VR experience. As the patient narrates his or her trauma, the therapist will match the context that they're in and add sensory elements to enhance the patient's engagement with their memory.”
By going over the memory in the VR environment, you can learn that you’re now in a safe environment. Typically, patients receive about nine VR exposure therapy sessions.
There are only two medications approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for treating PTSD. Both sertraline and paroxetine are SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) that are used for PTSD treatment.
Additionally, your healthcare provider may recommend medication to treat symptoms of PTSD, such as anxiety, depression or sleep issues. Certain medicines may also be used during VR exposure therapy sessions to enhance the type of learning that happens during therapy.
Accessing PTSD Treatment
Taking care of your mental health is as essential as caring for your physical health. For veterans and other military service members with PTSD, accessing support can decrease symptoms and help you enjoy a full life with the ones who matter most to you.
“If you have a cough and it persists for more than three or four days, you’re probably going to stop treating yourself and go see a medical care provider,” Difede says. “If you're feeling out of sorts, not sleeping, having intrusive images, feeling down in the dumps and depressed, sad or hopeless—those are all reasons to go talk with a trained specialist and get a consultation. I can't tell you the number of people who said, ‘Gosh, I wish I did this sooner.’”