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Veterans and Mental Health


Written by: Sharon Cohen


American Iraq and Afghanistan Vets Suffering from PTSD in Large Numbers


American soldiers have always suffered from the emotional impact of war. Over the centuries, such mental illness has been called a variety of names, such as shell shock, combat stress reaction, and combat neurosis. In 1980, the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) officially called it post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Last year, the Department of Veterans Affairs reported that since 9/11, nearly 30 percent of the 834,463 Iraq and Afghanistan War veterans treated at VA hospitals and clinics have been diagnosed with PTSD.


PTSD is distinguished from other mental illnesses, such as depression and anxiety, by its specific symptoms:


1) Hyper-arousal, or a state of persistent mental and physical excitation that may endure for months or years. 

2) Avoidance and numbing, or a psychological defense mechanisms to block out memories of the trauma, or even life situations that resemble the trauma.

3) Re-experiencing the trauma in nightmares or "flashbacks," defined as vivid, waking remembrances of the traumatic event.


Suicide is often associated with PTSD. In fact, the U.S. is seeing the highest suicide rates of any veterans. The VA reports that approximately 3,000 active-duty troops have killed themselves since 2001, not including any service members in the National Guard or Reserve. The present rate could be as many as 22 suicides per day among veterans of all ages.


The war in Iraq started in 2003. It took three more years for the first study to appear on the PTSD  being suffered by the troops and considerably longer for the U.S. government to start addressing the problem. Antidepressants, especially serotonin reuptake inhibitors such as Zoloft, Prozac or Paxil, or a specific serotonin/noradrenaline reuptake inhibitor, including Effexor, are used as the first form of therapy.


Other approaches are also being studied for PTSD treatment including hyperbaric oxygen therapy, in which the patient breathes in oxygen at very high pressure. Other researchers are testing transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), which uses an oscillating magnetic field to release neurotransmitters. This is not at all similar to shock therapy.


It is always recommended that therapy with a professional trained in trauma be done hand-in-hand with other approaches. In group therapy, vets share experiences. In one-on-one sessions with a therapist, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) has been found to be helpful. In CBT, the vets learn how to channel their negative and fearful thoughts.  In another approach, prolonged exposure, vets confront the situations and memories they are trying to avoid through digital communication.


The VA provides many types of counseling and assistance for PTSD, such as:

  • Individual and group counseling for veterans and their families.
  • Family counseling for military-related issues.
  • Substance abuse assessment and referral.
  • Services to help veterans make a successful transition from military to civilian life, including employment assessment and referral. 


The Veterans Crisis Line connects vets and family with qualified, caring Department of Veterans Affairs responders 24/7 every day of the year at:



PTSD should not be ignored. Any vets who are experiencing any of the side effects should consult with the VA or call the number above.


If dealing with trauma is not enough, the returning vets are also coping with pain, painkillers, addiction and mixing prescriptions. A CBS News report showed how many soldiers are receiving lethal amounts of pain medicine from VA hospitals. Since the story aired, CBS News has learned of numerous cases of veterans who've died after following doctors' orders. Some vets have 30 or more separate medicines and are told not to stop taking any of them. Presently, VA hospitals have just two pain management specialists for every 100,000 veterans.



Ricky Green, a veteran of the first Gulf War,  was receiving three narcotics for his back pain. He went to the VA doctors and asked to be taken off the large amounts of medicine, but they insisted he continue to take all of them. The next month, he died in his sleep by accidentally overdosing on a narcotic and a muscle relaxer prescribed by VA medical centers in Arkansas.




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