Be Cognizant Of The Emotional Toll Of War

Vijai P. Sharma, Ph.D

Not all veterans returning from war suffer any serious mental health consequences, but some do. Let's keep in mind that some veterans and their families can suffer from symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) even after 40, 50 or 60 years of war related trauma.

Symptoms such as, flashbacks, nightmares and intrusive recollections of events that originally traumatized a person may never quit, or return at times of personal stress or national conflict. Once traumatized, a person can always be vulnerable and on edge!

The mental cost of the war is often hidden from public sight. Soldiers and families bear the brunt as the "war" in the mind continues to rage, silently and privately, sometimes for the rest of their lives.

Referring to the number of U.S. soldiers killed in the present fight in Iraq, Dr. Evan Kanter, a psychiatrist at the Puget Sound Veterans Hospital says, "…people see the figure of 1200 dead. Much more rarely do they see the number of seriously wounded. And almost never do they hear anything at all about the psychiatric casualties." Perhaps, we should count the loss in terms of lives, limbs and minds (mental trauma).

Former navy physician Kenneth Hyams, M.D. says, "Every war produces its medical signature." A medical signature is formed by the degree of psychiatric awareness of their times. Many soldiers after the Civil War suffered from "irritable heart," (mind-body stress disorder, actually), World War I vets from "shell shock," World War II vets from "battle fatigue," and Vietnam War vets from "Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder." We don't yet know what exactly the medical signature for the Iraq war might prove to be, since it's still in progress.

One in three Vietnam War veterans experienced symptoms of major depression, severe anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder. An Army study shows one in six soldiers experiencing similar symptoms of anxiety, depression and trauma. That number is bound to climb with time.

According to one estimate, more than one hundred thousand soldiers will require mental health treatment! Mental health lessons learned from the Vietnam War dictate that we have to be better prepared this time and provide appropriate mental health screening and services.

Soldiers today receive far more mental health support on the ground, than they ever did in previous wars. But, do we have the necessary resources to provide the services Iraq veterans will need? Six of seven Veterans Affairs medical facilities surveyed said they might not be able to meet the mental health needs of PTSD veterans.

Some veterans (and their partners) would be coping with severe sleep disorder. For example, they would be sleeping in their bed at home and still fighting with the enemy or protecting themselves from a grenade or a landmine. They may be kicking or hitting their partners in their sleep, trying to "jump off the Humvee and falling to the floor.

In the wakeful state, they may be isolating themselves from everyone being hyper vigilant and acting paranoid in public. Unexpected noise such as a phone ringing, ambulance passing by or a door opening might cause an exaggerated startle response. Nightmares might become a daily occurrence.

They may take to heavy drinking or some other substance abuse in order to drown out the human screams, bomb explosions and sound of screeching vehicles. They may shun contact with others in any form or fashion. Some might try and not be able to hold a job and gradually slip into poverty or depend solely on disability income.

They may occasionally demonstrate rage outbursts with little provocation. They may be too preoccupied dealing with internal "stuff" to emotionally respond to their partners. They might fail to spontaneously tell their loved ones that they still love them, want them or need them.

Divorce may happen for partners who might find it impossible to cope with nerve wrecking events on a daily basis. Family breakup, alienation and distancing from loved ones may contribute to further deterioration of symptoms. Some may pay the ultimate price in the form of a successful suicidal attempt.

Not all emotionally afflicted soldiers would exhibit symptoms immediately after acute stress or trauma exposure. There is often a "delayed" occurrence of psychiatric symptoms. Some might be too embarrassed to admit they have a problem or to seek help.

Only soldiers, families and friends would know how debilitating and incapacitating these disorders can be! But, we all can offer our understanding and help any way we can; and we can appreciate the enormity of human tragedy they might face.

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Copyright 2005, Mind Publications 
Posted January 2005


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