Panel discusses post-traumatic stress

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  • By Christen N. McCluney
  • Defense Media Activity
As the frequency and length of military deployments increase, servicemembers and their families are faced with challenges associated with deployment and combat.

Building resilience, facilitating recovery and supporting reintegration of returning servicemembers and veterans are important steps in helping to prevent and treat combat stress reactions such as post-traumatic stress disorder.

"The biggest challenge is often related to the mental health stigma that exists out there," Lt. Col. Christopher Robinson, a senior executive for psychological health at the Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury, said in a "DoD Live" bloggers roundtable yesterday.

The Defense Centers of Excellence partners with the Defense and Veterans Affairs departments and a network of military and civilian agencies and mental health experts to encourage servicemembers to increase their awareness of psychological health and traumatic brain injury concerns and use resources available to them.

Army Staff Sgt. Meg Krause, a reservist and Real Warriors Campaign volunteer, and retired Navy Cmdr. René A. Campos, the director of health care issues and government relations for the Military Officers Association of America, joined Colonel Robinson on the conference call.

The Real Warriors Campaign, sponsored by the Defense Centers of Excellence, combats the stigma associated with seeking psychological health care and treatment. At the heart of the campaign are servicemembers like Sergeant Krause, who are proving through example that reaching out for care doesn't mean the end of a military career.

Sergeant Krause, who experienced PTSD after a tour in Iraq, discussed how she thought she would be able to cope after returning home. Her biggest fear was that she would lose her job if she admitted that there was something wrong.

"I figured a few nightmares or flashbacks here or there were normal, and did my best to cope and avoid triggers ... as it turned out I faced a larger struggle than expected," Sergeant Krause said.

Sergeant Krause said she began having issues with substance abuse and neglected her military commitments.

It wasn't until she was contacted by her unit, she added, that she realized she would not lose her job or be disciplined for having PTSD.

Her commander told her he had received treatment for PTSD, she said, and that helped her to discover that there was no shame in admitting she needed help.

One of the easiest ways to decrease the stigma among servicemembers is to create an environment or culture in which people feel comfortable talking about psychological health, Commander Campos said.

"It's hard to turn a switch on and off so we have to create environments so people feel comfortable," she said. "We need to provide peer support, because everything isn't always about the clinical side."

Colonel Robinson, who recently returned from Afghanistan, where he served as a combat stress detachment commander for Regional Command East, also said it's important for people to realize their feelings are a natural reaction.

"Post-traumatic stress is just the normal reaction to a traumatic event," he said. "It is a normal reaction to respond to a difficult event with difficulty."

Mental health providers in the services are trying to take preventive measures to make sure servicemembers feel comfortable enough to come and talk to them, he added.

"Our mission is to go out and be with the troops and get to know them so they can see you as a real person," he added.

In Afghanistan, he said, his team conducted "walk-abouts" so servicemembers were familiar with them, and they made sure they went into the work area so Soldiers felt comfortable talking to them.

They also offered classes such as yoga nidra, a form of meditation, to mitigate stress, he said.

"The message was, 'Here are some things you can do to help yourself before you can't function,'" Colonel Robinson said. "(Maintaining) your psychological fitness requires effort and time."

It's important for leaders to make sure servicemembers know all the resources available to them, he added.

"One of the mistakes we often make is we develop these great programs and assume everyone knows about them," he said.

The group also stressed the importance of family members and peers speaking up to help servicemembers receive the help they need.

"We have to be willing to reach out to troops, veterans and their families and say thank you for their sacrifice," Commander Campos said. "You can be the link that gives help and hope."

Sergeant Krause also emphasized that all servicemembers should know that if their problems are addressed appropriately, they can still have a highly successful military career and they won't be stigmatized for seeking help.

"What I discovered was there was absolutely no shame in admitting that I needed help," she said. "Through sharing my story with others in (my) unit, I've gained more respect."