A Study Shows PTSD Carries A Stigma For Veterans — Regardless Of Whether They Suffer From It
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A recent survey found most Americans greatly overestimate. How many veterans have PTSD? Two thirds of survey respondents believe it's more than half, but the real number is fewer than one in five. As Chris Hexcel reports for the American Homefront project, the misperception can lead to problems for veterans with, and without post traumatic stress disorder,
Speaker 2: (00:23)
Brogan Faron spent 28 years in the army. She was a helicopter pilot and deployed to combat zones and on peacekeeping missions before she retired three years ago, now she's a professional organizer and she finds that sometimes people in the civilian world are curious about her past life.
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They all want to thank you for your service, but then the next unanswered question is, are you okay? You know, can, can I talk to you without you? You know, getting mad.
Speaker 2: (00:54)
She gets it. People in the civilian world might not know many veterans. If their perception is driven by what they see on TV or online, they might associate the military with severe PTSD.
Speaker 3: (01:06)
You know, people have a perception that all of us, that we all have PTSD at the most severe level. And I don't really think that people understand that it's, it's a graduated scale. Just like almost everything in life.
Speaker 2: (01:21)
It's sort of a catch 22. If we ignore PTSD, people might not get the help they need, but overdramatizing, it can create a stigma.
Speaker 3: (01:30)
I don't think they show enough of the middle of the road or the well-treated PTSD. And I'm concerned in the long-term that that will hurt the working prospect of set turns.
Speaker 2: (01:46)
It's pretty common for people to assume veterans have PTSD. Tracy Neil Walden is a clinical psychologist and chief clinical officer at Cohen veterans network. She says many patients describe awkward questions about combat. And when people find out Neil Walden deployed overseas with the air force, she gets that question herself. Okay.
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Always an assumption that you've seen or done something horrific
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Through surveys, Cohen veterans network has found that Americans overestimate how many veterans experience PTSD and whether people with PTSD are dangerous and they underestimate how treatable the disorder is.
Speaker 4: (02:26)
I'm not surprised that there's misinformation, but the degree of individuals, the percentage of individuals who believe this was extremely surprising and really disheartening
Speaker 2: (02:40)
Iraq and Afghanistan, veterans of America is an advocacy group that focuses in part on mental health. Hannah sent away a vice-president there who is also a professional counselor, has spoken with thousands of veterans. She describes the stigma around veterans and PTSD as extreme, which means some people they meet might fear them just because they served.
Speaker 5: (03:03)
And it also creates difficulties and barriers for the individuals who are struggling. Right. You know, do you feel comfortable talking about this with your friends and family and your community? You know, sometimes not
Speaker 2: (03:17)
At IVA, she's helped run a program called QRF that's military terminology for quick reaction force. And in this case, QRF is a hotline that veterans who need mental health care can call 24 hours per day. And the last two weeks of August calls to the hotline, we're up 70%.
Speaker 5: (03:36)
And the vast majority of those folks were calling as a direct result of what was happening in Afghanistan and their kind of personal feelings, um, feelings of stress and sorrow and confusion. Um, so we definitely saw a very notable uptick, um, in the veteran community of people struggling and reaching out for help.
Speaker 2: (03:58)
So as the volume of calls is of course disheartening, but if there's a silver lining, it's the fact that so many people are willing to reach out when they need help. Some veterans might be wary of walking into a doctor's office to talk about mental health. So if the first step is a phone call or a text message, that's okay, I'm Chris hassle in Kansas city.
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This story was produced by the American Homefront project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans funding comes from the corporation for public broadcasting.
Over her 28-year Army career, Brogan Farren worked as a helicopter pilot and military planner. She deployed to combat zones and flew peacekeeping missions. And when she retired three years ago, Farren found that when people in the civilian world met her, they sometimes had four very specific letters on their mind: PTSD.
“They all want to thank you for your service,” she said. “But then the next [unasked] question is, ‘Are you OK?’ Can I talk to you without you, you know, getting mad?’”
Farren gets it. Since 9/11, both the military and civilian world have made progress when it comes to understanding and treating post-traumatic stress disorder. But confusion lingers.
A survey commissioned by Cohen Veterans Network found most Americans greatly overestimate how many veterans have PTSD. Two-thirds of respondents believe it’s more than half. According to experts, the real number is fewer than one in five.
“I'm not surprised that there's misinformation,” said Tracy Neil-Walden, a clinical psychologist and chief clinical officer at Cohen Veterans Network.
“But the percentage of [respondents] who believe this was extremely surprising and really disheartening.”
Estimates on the actual prevalence of PTSD among veterans from the Gulf War and the post 9/11 era run between 12 and 20 percent, Neil-Walden said.
Those misperceptions have real-world consequences.
Many patients describe awkward questions about combat, Neil-Walden said. And when people find out she deployed overseas with the Air Force, Neil-Walden gets asked the same thing.
“There's always an assumption that you've seen or done something horrific,” she said.
Farren pins some responsibility for the misperception on portrayals in movies and television, which may depict veterans as homeless or suffering from severe PTSD.
“I know that you're trying to make the public aware that we have our challenges and that PTSD is real - and it is - but I think it's so overdramatized in one direction,” she said.
“I don't think they show enough of the middle of the road or the well-treated PTSD," Farren said. "And I'm concerned in the long-term that will hurt the working prospect of veterans.”
Neil-Walden said PTSD comes in many degrees of severity. It’s easier to identify people with severe symptoms because they may engage in disruptive behavior or be unable to do their jobs. But it’s much harder to spot people who seek and receive proper treatment.
Another problem with misperceptions about PTSD is that they may exacerbate the divide between the military and civilian worlds.
“There’s still a massive and extreme stigma” associated with veterans and mental health, said Hannah Sinoway, a professional counselor and executive vice president with Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.
IAVA runs a 24-hour hotline for veterans who need mental health care. Calls during the last two weeks of August were up 70 percent, Sinoway said.
“The vast majority of those folks were calling as a direct result of what was happening in Afghanistan,” she said.
Many veterans were feeling “stress, sorrow, and confusion,” she said, as the country they fought in descended so quickly into chaos as U.S. forces pulled out.
The stigma veterans may feel “creates difficulties and barriers for the individuals who are struggling,” she said. “Do you feel comfortable talking about this with your friends and family, and your community? Sometimes not, and there’s a real disconnect.”
While the volume of hotline calls is disheartening, Sinoway said there’s a silver lining in the fact that so many people are willing to reach out when they need help. Some veterans might be wary of walking into a doctor's office to talk about mental health, so if the first step is a phone call or text message, that’s okay.
This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.