November 09, 2018
Post-traumatic stress disorder has been commonly associated with direct exposure to military combat, but in reality, traumas that lead to PTSD can take many forms.
Outside of direct or remote combat situations — such as the trauma associated with operating a drone — service members may experience many other traumas that extend well beyond contact with bomb blasts and firefights. These situations can include knowing or seeing someone seriously injured or killed, handling human remains, or sending subordinates into line of fire.
Even the daily work of casualty notification officers, those who inform military families that their loved one has been killed, can be traumatizing.
In fact, trauma might be more common than you think.
According to the National Center for PTSD, 60 percent of men and 50 percent of women experience at least one trauma in their lives. These types of traumas can include sexual or physical assault, involvement in a serious accident, witnessing a natural disaster, or seeing a death or serious injury.
While veterans appear to be at an increased risk of developing PTSD, it is not uncommon for veterans to be diagnosed with PTSD related to trauma that occurred outside of their military experience.
Quite frequently, I have seen veterans with PTSD related to non-military experiences, including exposure to community violence, sexual assault before or after military service, and childhood abuse or other childhood trauma. There is even some evidence to suggest that those who enlist in the military may have a higher rate of adverse childhood events — negative life events that occur during childhood, including traumatic events — than those who have not served.
Although PTSD can affect anyone — adults, children, veterans, and civilians alike — it is important to remember that having a history of trauma does not necessarily mean an individual has the condition. About 50 percent or more of adults have experienced trauma yet only 6.8 percent have been diagnosed with PTSD in their entire lifetime. Some individuals have a history of trauma, but not PTSD, though they have other mental health diagnoses such as mood or anxiety disorders; whereas others may have a long history of various traumas and never develop PTSD or any other mental health issue.
Regardless of your background, the most important step is to reach out for help if you need it. First, if you are in crisis, you can call the Veterans Crisis Line 24/7 at 1-800-273-8255 and press 1.
For those who are looking for help, an easy way to find a psychiatrist or therapist is one Google search away. Mobile apps are another tool for self-help, education, and support following trauma. Additionally, The Steven A. Cohen Military Family Clinic at Penn provides no-cost behavioral health care for veterans and their family members.
If you or someone you know has a history of trauma and continues to have difficulties interacting with others, maintaining employment or relationships, or generally is frequently in distress, remember that you are not alone. Get the treatment you deserve to feel well, and encourage your loved ones to do the same.
Ashleigh Adams, Ph.D., is a psychologist with The Steven A. Cohen Military Family Clinic at the University of Pennsylvania. The Cohen Clinic provides free, high-quality mental health care for veterans and military family members.