An in-depth look at Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

PTSD is an anxiety disorder caused by the exposure to traumatic or distressful events. PTSD can develop immediately after the traumatic event has occurred or months or years later.

Normally, the brain stores the information about any given event in a temporary slot in the amygdala and later files it into a permanent memory slot in the hippocampus.

During a traumatic event, the mind focuses on survival and does not properly store the information in the amygdala. People who suffer from PTSD may relive the trauma through flashbacks and nightmares, and may feel angry and isolated as a result.

PTSD in the Armed Forces

PTSD affects many veterans. The condition can have a knock-on effect on your family life and employment. It's more common with veterans who have experienced active combat. It can manifest months or years after the event occurred, and thus it can be misdiagnosed or not associated with the experience that caused it.

Isolation and alcohol and substance abuse are common PTSD avoidance tactics. Avoidance refers to practices and routines people use to not think or deal with their condition.

Alcohol plays a big part in military life, and many veterans with PTSD will drink in order to avoid thinking about their trauma. Once they leave the Armed Forces, veterans find it more difficult to afford alcohol.

While in service, veterans with PTSD feel protected by their 'military family' and may not be diagnosed with PTSD. They may find life outside the Armed Forces particularly difficult. On civvy street, PTSD can manifest more potently and it can seriously hinder your efforts to integrate in civilian life. The first 18 months after leaving the military are particularly vulnerable. Getting help within this time frame is important for recovery if you have mental health difficulties.

Many veterans avoid seeking help because they feel that civilian services will not give them the respect they deserve, or they fear being 'looked down' by people who cannot understand their condition and what they have experienced.

Organisations such as Combat Stress offer mental health support that takes into account military culture. In recent years, veterans who have experienced active combat have been seeking support earlier compared to previous generations.

For example, it took on average two years for veterans who served in Afghanistan and 3.3 years for those who served in Iraq to seek support. Comparatively, it took Northern Ireland veterans 13.3 years on average, and Falklands veterans 14.9.

Recognising PTSD

People with PTSD tend to isolate themselves, be more quiet than normal and lose their temper easily. For example, a veteran returning from service might spend a lot of time by themselves or avoid sitting down for dinner with their family. They may find basic chores such as going to the supermarket too much to handle. Also, they may avoid sleeping because they're afraid of having nightmares.

Alcohol and drug consumption can help people avoid thinking about their traumatic experience. If family members observe any or all of these signs, they should try discussing it with the person or contact specialist services such as Combat Stress (0800 138 1619).

Unfortunately, veterans who have experienced combat and have PTSD are also more likely to be abusive. Dependants should always seek support if their partner is violent.

Specialised support

PTSD is treatable, but veterans struggling with it need to admit they have a problem. For many, their biggest support is their family.

Next, veterans need to attend an assessment and engage in therapy with an open mind and a desire to get better. There are different therapy options to choose from depending on your circumstances, but you need to take the first step and seek help.

Therapists and psychiatrists will look to stabilise patients and prescribe the right medicine. During therapy, you will be encouraged to expose yourself to what happened and talk about it. This process can be brutal and emotionally draining, but it's often the only way to get better.

For help, see our guides below:

Watch the video below to find out more about the mental health support Veterans' Gateway offered to veterans Colin and Pete and their spouses.

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