Military, medical profession needs new thinking on PTSD

Linda Fletcher thinks it’s time to start thinking differently about post-traumatic stress disorder – how it is defined, diagnosed and treated.

Given the huge numbers of military veterans suffering the horrors of PTSD and the limited success the medical profession has had dealing with its debilitating symptoms, the sooner the better.

Fletcher, who now lives in Long Lake Township, is uniquely qualified to talk about PTSD. She is a retired U.S. Army Lt. Col. and a 22-year veteran of the Army Nurse Corps.

Her father was a career Army officer who, she believes, suffered from PTSD most of his adult life after his combat experiences in Italy in WWII, where he was awarded the Silver Star.

Fletcher’s concerned about the long-term effects PTSD will have on veterans, their families and society.

“What we are doing doesn’t work,” she said. “We’re still treating people from World War II and Vietnam. It’s incredibly expensive and there is a lot of collateral damage – drug and alcohol abuse, inability to hold a job, homelessness, suicide, fractured homes. … It’s a huge problem and it’s just getting bigger.”

PTSD is triggered by a terrifying and/or tragic event – war, combat, catastrophe and abuse of all kinds. Symptoms include flashbacks, nightmares and severe anxiety. Timely diagnosis and effective treatment have become a major national concern.

Nearly 30 percent of veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan have PTSD and 50 percent of those do not seek treatment.

Fletcher, who will teach a two-session Northwestern Michigan College extended education class on the issue later this month, thinks the current medical definition of PTSD fails to cover the full range of dissociative symptoms veterans suffer.

It also does not address psychological/spiritual symptoms such as deep shame, guilt and rage that can come out of combat experiences.

PTSD is currently defined as an “anxiety disorder” in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders published by the American Psychiatric Association.

Fletcher said there is increasing talk of broadening the definition to encompass the dissociative aspects of PTSD.

Area veterans can turn to the Veterans Administration’s Traverse City Vet Center, which opened in January of 2011; It provides a non-clinical setting where veterans can get help for PTSD and other readjustment issues.

The statistics tell part of the story. A U.S. military veteran commits suicide every 65 minutes on the average and about 22 veterans committed suicide each day in 2010, according to federal studies. Many of them are believed to have been suffering from PTSD.

That has to change. And that change can start by listening to people like Linda Fletcher.