Not enough help for veterans suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
// Katherine Alpen

About the time most Canadians will be sitting down to their Christmas dinners this year, the majority of Canadian troops, specifically those based in Kandahar, will have been withdrawn from active service in Afghanistan. Facing these soldiers is the world of civilian life, though some may be sent on other tours throughout the world as enlisted men and women. Of those coming home, though, some bring an unseen weight on their shoulders: there was no name for it in 1918 or 1945, but these days, it’s known as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

PTSD is an anxiety disorder that can affect anyone who has suffered a traumatic event which has threatened injury or death to themselves or someone near to them. PTSD isn’t limited to soldiers. Ask anyone who was in New York during 9/11, or civilian witnesses of war crimes. Rape, abuse, and violent crime victims all share the same (though varying in intensity and situation) traumatic aftermath. Symptoms of PTSD include, but aren’t limited to, flashback episodes of traumatic events, emotional numbing, difficulty concentrating, avoidance, agitation, and outbursts of anger.
As of late, PTSD has been getting more media attention, influenced by a younger, more vocal generation returning home. Currently, there is no program outside the military offering aid to those soldiers suffering from the disorder. Soldiers are often gun-shy when it comes to showing or admitting they have PTSD because of the negative stigma it carries. Though a soldier might seek help to make it through a lengthy trip away, it could be judged as attempting to avoid service. This stigma makes it difficult to find willing test subjects for studies intending to advance therapeutic practices. Mental health programs have an especially difficult time guiding older veterans to the services now available, as they are less likely to seek help.

The most challenging reality facing doctors treating patients with PTSD is that treatment is never standard. A new therapy technique that has been put through a controlled study is virtual reality treatment (VRT). In VRT, test subjects undergo therapy based on reliving environments that caused them trauma and working through them with logic and reason, as opposed to reacting in anger and frustration.

With test subjects returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, VRT did well versus treatment as normal (TAN), with a 30 per cent improvement in 70 per cent of participants. However, the study didn’t confirm that each and every person would have more success with VRT, whereas in the TAN study there was improvement with 50 per cent of patients. It is a matter of discerning the specific challenges facing each patient and then deciding which therapies are best for that patient alone; a time-consuming challenge for any health care practitioner.

Once a soldier has retired, he or she is basically on their own when it comes to treating any disorder. According to a report by Veterans Affairs Canada in 2000, 28 per cent of soldiers report symptoms of severe depression. The process for finding help is both very time-consuming and complicated. For this reason, Canada needs to have a program separate from the military that can address this demographic of suffering soldiers. The Canadian Military has occasionally compensated soldiers suffering from PTSD with a lump sum, but realistically, this kind of practice hides the problem without offering any kind of long-term solution.

In the last ten years, the Canadian Military has made advances in the pre-deployment training programs and post-deployment assessments of soldiers. As well as offering treatment options, they have also been said to be working hard to destroy the stigma of PTSD for soldiers.

A new position in the military specifically developed for soldiers suffering is that of a Social Work Officer. It's the job of the Social Work Officer to evaluate soldiers with their families, and give them a post-assessment after service making sure there are no mental stresses that require treatment.

In a recruitment video on, Social Work Officer Mercy Yeboah-Ampadu stated, “People aren’t looking to get out of a tour, they’re looking at ways to help them use their strength to get through it.” However, these workers aren’t required to have combat training or experience in the field, so there is a gap of understanding that could impede some soldiers in relating to the help they are receiving.

As you read this newspaper, there are many PTSD afflicted soldiers on their way home. Even though the military has improved their support systems for these individuals, without a comprehensive program outside the military, many of these men and women will be on their own.

// Katherine Alpen, Writer
// Illustration by Katie So

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