WASHINGTON – Some members of Congress and psychological experts said Wednesday that post traumatic stress disorder among soldiers isn't getting the attention it deserves.
Rep. Steve Buyer R-Ind.,is the ranking member of the Veterans' Affairs Committee,which held a symposium on the subject.
“This nation doesn't understand PTSD,” Buyer said. He said people are trying to rename PTSD,undermining the seriousness of the affliction with names like “stress injury.”
“We cannot be sloppy in our words or our language. … PTSD is a serious mental problem,” said Rep. Bob Filner,D-Calif.
Buyer said that it's difficult for those in the military to admit to mental anguish because of the stigma it carries.
PTSD is a mental illness once called shellshock that causes symptoms such as nightmares,flashbacks and demoralization. PTSD isn't a singular disease – it's usually accompanied by other anxiety and depressive disorders as well as substance abuse. The majority of documented PTSD cases are among military personnel,which highlights the relationship between combat survivors and mental illness.
The military also fails to diagnose PTSD properly,sometimes saying a soldier has a personality disorder,which can make treatment ineffective.
Filner said identifying the disease this way places soldiers in a category of having a pre-existing condition,absolving the Department of Veterans Affairs of responsibility for the soldier.
The VA Web site says that 50,000 soldiers had sought help for PTSD through 2005. Of that number 16,000 were from the war in Iraq. Although the VA lists no more recent statistics,Saul Rosenberg,an associate clinical professor of medical psychology at the University of California,San Francisco,recalled one study stating that,out of 700,000 soldiers submitting claims to the VA for any problem,200,000 were PTSD or stress related disorders.
Former Marine John Melia,the founder and executive director of the Wounded Warrior Project,a foundation devoted to helping wounded soldiers recover from physical and mental injuries,at one time suffered from PTSD. His helicopter exploded off the coast of Somalia in 1992 killing four of 18 on board and injuring the rest.
“It was sheer terror … terror of drowning,terror of watching your friends die in front of you” he said. “When something like that happens,you change immediately. … It's like a conversion.”
Melia described the need for soldiers to get help and the hardship that comes with losing friends and reclaiming their lives.
One predicament delaying soldiers' recovery is their allotted transition time. Buyer said that,while soldiers are trained for months and months to go into battle,their transition into life back home is extremely short. However,the transition isn't the main problem,he said,getting help is.
One of the focal points of the symposium was the disconnect between the departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs.
Dr. James Henry Scully,medical director for the American Psychiatric Association,described the “non-congruity” of records sharing between the two departments,forcing hospitals to treat ailing soldiers without having seen their medical records.
One issue many of the panelists agreed on was underfunding and understaffing of VA institutions.
Beth Hudnall Stamm,director of telehealth at the Institute of Rural Health at Idaho State University,said much of soldiers' mental care is handled by civilian clinics,which may not understand the complexity of problems specific to military injuries. She said PTSD is best treated when it is detected early,and the longer the wait the harder the treatment becomes.
Buyer said three budget bills before Congress will set a 30 percent increase for military health care.
An added dilemma facing returning soldiers is getting access to health care,especially if they're from rural areas or a minority. Rosenberg said most ethnic minorities and women are less likely to get the right mental health care. He said women are more willing than men to seek help from their own social groups if they don't get it from the VA.
Melia said fixing the problem will require convincing soldiers that there is no shame in seeking help and that they need to be assured doing so will not hurt their careers.
“The trauma is real. … It's OK to suffer from immense stress related to combat” he said. “It is natural what our warriors go through. War is dirty business.”