PTSD Battle Plan: Giving our Military Innovative Treatment

by Michele Rosenthal

Recently, on a Sunday morning, a U.S. Army Staff Sergeant went on a civilian killing spree in an Afghanistan village. When he was finished with the premeditated massacre the sergeant quietly walked a mile back to base and turned himself in. While we wait for details about the state of his mental health prior to the attack it’s inevitable that the question of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) will surface. The Mental Health Advisory Team, the military’s own research division, reports that soldiers in third and fourth deployments are at an increased risk of reporting mental health problems. The sergeant was on his third tour of duty; his first one in Afghanistan.

This event shouldn’t come as a surprise to the Army. In a report released this past January, Generating Health and Discipline in the Force Ahead of the Strategic Reset Report 2012, the Army revealed alarming increases in both the violent actions of our servicemen and women and the presence of PTSD. Clearly, a problem exists in our military’s mental health. Such a problem, in fact, that a last month the American Psychiatric Association (APA) expanded its PTSD criteria to include ‘persistent feelings of recurring guilt or shame’. The move comes after much debate, collaboration between the VA’s National Center for PTSD and the APA, plus researchers’ conclusion in 2011 that moral conflict ranks highest in the OIF/OEF veterans’ PTSD experience.

Our soldiers are not automatons; they are human. As statistics enlarge and the Afghanistan drawdown continues we have to ask ourselves, again, why the military – especially the VA – continues to drag its feet on efficiently supporting our soldiers’ mental health. At a recent defense budget hearing, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced a new effort in the Army’s investigations into a Madigan Army Medical Center behavioral health program. Almost 300 soldiers’ PTSD diagnoses were changed when they sought medical retirements. The diagnostic reversals were costly to service members who lost disability benefits provided to soldiers struggling with PTSD. The investigation’s implication (for example, drawn from the comment of one psychiatrist in the forensic unit who encouraged colleagues not to be a ‘rubber stamp’ as PTSD diagnoses cost taxpayers) is that PTSD falls within socioeconomic parameters rather than mental health priorities.

At the same time, the military remains way behind the curve in adding sufficient effective and accessible alternative treatment options to the mix of traditional PTSD treatment modalities. In July 2010 a House Committee on Veterans Affairs meeting discussed alternative treatment options for PTSD and Traumatic Brain Injuries. Rep. Bob Filner, D-Calif., wanted answers as to why the military has been so slow to incorporate alternative treatment techniques. The session opened with such statements as “PTSD can be healed like an injury” and “with more treatment PTSD gets better.” Those who testified offered ideas that could project us decades forward in military PTSD treatment. Still, current treatment relies heavily on traditional talk therapy, Prolonged Exposure Therapy and drugs – all of which can be advantageous, the sum of which allows little room for the diversity PTSD recovery demands.

As the founder of www.healmyptsd.com, a website for PTSD education and support that sees over 16,000 visitors per month, I have frequently received email from members of the military. They complain of the inaccessibility of the VA, long appointment wait times, lack of substantial treatment and a reliance on medication. They confide that they want treatment that helps them to move from merely coping with PTSD symptoms to, as one veteran puts it, “find some piece of mind.”

In the alternative healing field, of which I’m a part, we see treatments that bring enormous relief every day. Therapies such as Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, Emotional Freedom Technique, Somatic Experiencing, Havening and Neuro-Linguistic Programming all offer the opportunity of substantial and lasting change. Hypnosis, recognized as a legitimate therapeutic technique by the American Medical Association since 1958 (and used often in the military during World War I and II), also offers enormous benefits for those suffering with PTSD. Sadly, a high ranking official in Maine’s Veterans Administration told me that although he’s trained and believes in hypnosis, he can’t use it because “it’s got a bad rep”.

It would be easy to write off all of the alternative modalities because of their seemingly woo-woo origins. Except for this: many of them work.

After a few hours of testimony, the moderator of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs meeting closed the session by asking, “How do we bring innovation to institutions designed not to innovate?” This is the question the Army’s report and we as a nation need to address. The next positive action to improve PTSD treatment for our veterans requires – as the moderator suggested – “an office of revolution”.

At a time when the APA is revising PTSD criteria and the Army is investigating a possible PTSD diagnosis scandal at Madigan Army Medical center, such an office would put in place consistent PTSD diagnosis guidelines, plus a wholly accessible, comprehensive PTSD treatment program that offers a complementary blend of both traditional and alternative techniques. It would set aside modality stigmas, professional in-fighting and any trace of possible diagnostic manipulation. It would stop spending millions on more evidence-based research and focus instead on what our military members really need: honest diagnosis and individualized treatment options unencumbered by political protocol.

Michele Rosenthal’s PTSD recovery memoir, BEFORE THE WORLD INTRUDED: Conquering the Past and Creating the Future, will be released on April 25. She is the founder of healmyPTSD.com.

 

 
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