The Community Service Approach to PTSD in Recent Veterans

After a day of Nathan’s hot dogs, American flags and fireworks, I was sitting at home watching ESPN’s Sportscenter as July Fourth turned into July Fifth. The sports channel put together a heartwarming tribute piece on returning US soldiers surprising their families at different sports venues around the country. After around 50 emotional reunion clips, I was on the verge of tears. However, what these videos did not show was the more trying weeks and months that often follow these joyful reunions.

Once the magic of the initial return has worn away, many returning soldiers are tormented by symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Returning soldiers with PTSD face enormous difficulty acclimating to life stateside. The illness can cause an individual to have difficulty controlling emotions, problems sleeping, and may lead to antisocial behaviors that can put a strain on his or her professional and social life. As Dr. Elspeth Cameron Ritchie noted in her Cerebrum article, “Suicide and the United States Army: Perspectives from the Former Psychiatry Consultant to the Army Surgeon General,” these strains can lead to family breakups and trouble at work. Those two factors are direct causes of many military suicides, according to research she cites. Her Cerebrum article covers the disturbing growth—around double—in military suicides since 2004, theories on their causes, and potential solutions. [source (PDF)]

Part of the solution is raising awareness. That is the goal of the US Department of Veterans Affairs’ PTSD Awareness Month each June. Awareness helps communities understand what returning soldiers are dealing with and helps increase funding for further research. This research is important because many scientists, like Dana Alliance member Kerry Ressler, M.D., Ph.D., who was interviewed for a recent Dana blog, believe PTSD can be prevented, if we knew how. Until then, more work is needed to help recent vets who continue to struggle with PTSD and readjusting to everyday life.

In the July isue of Time Magazine, the article “Can Service Save Us?” by Joe Klein illustrates how veterans’ groups are using community service work. While there is limited research data to suggest that active service in the community can help people with PTSD, Klein tells stories of veterans on the verge of suicide, who found help through organizations like Team Rubicon and The Mission Continues. Team Rubicon has trained 7,000 veterans in disaster-relief missions, like the recent tornadoes in Oklahoma or Hurricane Sandy in 2012. The Mission Continues provides recently returned veterans with six month community service fellowships that include building houses, helping in health care, teaching, counseling, working on farms, and helping other veterans. Eric Greitens, a former Navy SEAL who founded The Mission Continues, created the program after he visited Bethesda Naval Hospital in 2007 and heard vets expressing an unrelenting desire to serve. In one 2009 study, Klein cites that of recent vets, 92% voiced an interest in continuing to serve others in some way.  So it’s probably not a surprise that in a Washington University study of 52 of the Mission Continues fellows, “86% of the fellows reported a positive life-changing experience,” Klein reports in his story.

For more information on the public service movement, be sure to read Joe Klein’s article. If the topic interests you, check out the Mission Continues and Team Rubicon websites.

—Simon Fischweicher

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