According to MilitaryBenefits.info, 20% of people who experience a traumatic event develop PTSD symptoms, and an estimated 50% of all mental health patients are also diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. While PTSD Awareness Month and Day (June 27) are associated with military personnel and the trauma they face from their experiences in war zones1, PTSD can happen to anyone who experiences a traumatic event. We spoke with Clinical Assistant Professor of Psychiatry Brittany Pace, MD, about what causes PTSD, some signs of the condition, how to heal, places to seek help, and local resources.
What defines a traumatic event?
A traumatic event can be any event where a person is exposed to death, the threat of death, serious injury, or sexual violence. This can occur when a person directly experiences the event, witnesses the event in person, learns that an event occurred to someone that is close to them, or experienced repeated or extreme exposure to details of traumatic events.
What are some of the signs of PTSD?
A person may experience a variety of symptoms that fall into a few categories.
- Intrusive symptoms associated with the traumatic event such as distressing memories, nightmares, flashbacks, or intense psychological or physiological reactions when exposed to cues that may remind them of the event.
- Avoidant symptoms such that they try to avoid any thoughts, memories, or feelings associated with the trauma. They may also avoid any external reminders such as the news, movies, conversations, or environments that remind them of the event.
- Changes in thoughts or mood after the traumatic event. This may include having trouble remembering the details of the event, having negative thoughts about themselves or the world, feeling detached from others, losing interest in things they used to enjoy, or having difficulty feeling positive emotions.
- They may also experience changes in arousal or reactivity including irritability or anger outbursts, reckless or self-destructive behavior, hypervigilance, increased startle, sleep difficulties, or problems with concentration. If a person experiences these symptoms for at least one month after the event, the symptoms are not related to another condition or substance, and they cause significant distress or impairment, the person may have PTSD.
At what point should someone seek help for themselves or a loved one?
If a person experiences a traumatic event and develops symptoms that cause significant distress or impair their ability to function, they may benefit from engaging in treatment. If a veteran is enrolled with the VA, they can request referral to mental health or ask their Patient Aligned Care team (PACT) about walk-in clinics. If they are not enrolled, they can go to the eligibility and enrollment office at their local VA. Vets may also choose to seek treatment through their local Vet Center.
Individuals can look online for centers that specialize in trauma treatment. If they want to use their insurance to pay for treatment, it may be helpful to get a list of psychiatrists, psychologists, and other therapists that take their insurance. They can cross check this with PsychologyToday.com if they chose. As always, I highly recommend people call the Banner-University Medical Center South psychiatry clinics, as our faculty and residents are well versed in trauma-related conditions. We offer Military Outpatient Services, as well as adult and child psychiatry services.
What are some therapies that can help provide relief and healing?
First line psychotherapy modalities include prolonged exposure and cognitive processing therapy. Prolonged exposure will walk a person through safe situations that they have avoided because they may elicit traumatic memories. It works by teaching the person how to increase control in their life by facing situations they previously feared. Cognitive Processing therapy focuses on addressing maladaptive beliefs related to trauma and helps a person reframe those negative thoughts.
A person may be treated with medication, therapy, or both depending on their preferences and the recommendations of their physician and/or therapist. First line medications for PTSD are generally SSRIs (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors, commonly referred to as anti-depressants) with other medications potentially added to address specific symptoms. Your physician will review your specific history to help select the most appropriate treatment.
Where can someone find referrals for PTSD support groups?
There are many different groups depending on the person’s specific situation. However, many in-person groups have been shut down or modified due to COVID-19. If someone is a veteran, they can ask what resources are available through the VA. National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) and the Southern Arizona Center against Sexual Assault may be good starting points to find groups. As always, your physician and/or therapist may be able to direct towards specific groups or programs in the community that would best fit your needs.
- PTSD Help Guide
- Military Benefits PTSD Awareness
1The History of PTSD Awareness Day & Month
In 2010, Senator Kent Conrad pushed to get official recognition of PTSD via a “day of awareness” in tribute to a North Dakota National Guard member Staff Sergeant Joe Biel who took his life after his return from duty following two tours in Iraq. His birthday was June 27. In 2014, the Senate designated the full month of June for National PTSD Awareness.