PTSD: Military Launches Website To Aid Soldiers In Coping With War-Zone Related Trauma
March 16, 2007
The thinking among many members of the military is that if they admit that they have mental health problems, it will adversely affect their career, making promotion difficult, or cause their fellow soldier’s to look at him or her as being weak. Therefore, many time when a soldier is suffering from mental health problems, they are generally very reluctant to seek help for the problems they’re experiencing. Some instead turn to self-medication with alcohol or illegal drugs, while others may chose a more permanent way of dealing with their mental health woes…. suicide. The Military has launched a Virtual Therapy website called afterdeployment.org to give the servicemembers an avenue for seeking assistance.
Last week, a group of researchers, therapists and military psychologists met at the fifth annual Militay Suicide Prevention Conference in Hollywood, Florida. Discussions were held on how to stem military suicides. In 2005, 22 servicemembers killed themselves in Iraq, Kuwait and Afghanistan. Even though is is very comparable to the suicide rate of the general male civilian population, there is concern in the military that due to the traumatic events that servicemembers face during deployment in War Zones, that it makes them psychologically vulnerable. In a study that was conducted and published in the American Journal of Psychiatry in January, approximately 16 % of troops returning from the Iraq alone meet the criteria for PTSD, within a year after they return home from the warzone.
“If you told me to try therapy when I was 22, I would have told you you were the crazy one,” said Keith Armstrong, a family therapist at UC San Francisco, who spoke at the conference. He is one of the authors of the recently published “Courage After Fire,” a book that helps families and soldiers cope with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Armstrong said the military’s website, which will include an on-screen therapist who can appear in video workshops, will not have the nuance and feel of face-to-face meetings between client and therapist. But, he added, “If a large portion of your population won’t step foot into a therapist’s office in the first place, maybe this is the precussor to therapy that’s necessary.”
The website has been under construction for the past two years as part of a Congressional mandate for the military to address Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Studies have shown that soldiers serving in both Iraq and Afghanistan are reluctant to visit mental health centers that are set up for them in Iraq or Afghanistan, for fear that they will be stigmatized by their fellow soldiers.
In 2003 a study of military suicides was conducted by the Office of the US Army Surgeon General, after deaths by suicide of 5 soldiers in Iraq, within a month’s period. The website will allow the soldiers in the field as well as soldiers and veterans back home to log in, without any requirement to identify themselves. Since this is considered a self-help site, and not professional therapy, the soldiers and veterans won’t be able to receive medical advice or be able to be prescribed prescriptions for mental health problems. Traffic on the site won’t be tracked and the DoD will not monitor it. The military won’t know about the soldier, unless they contact a mental health provider and tell them that they had used the site.
Army Col. Dr. Gregory Gahm said the site’s design, including the URL — .org instead of .mil — is geared toward the young male who is unlikely to seek official military help for mental health needs. The test site, which Gahm presented at the conference, showed a home page with a decidedly hip look: images of young soldiers, surrounded by links that are spelled out in a style normally found on hip-hop CD covers: “KnOW your stUff.” Another asks, “How am I doing?” and leads the user to a self-assessment survey.
In focus groups, Gahm said viewers complained that the initial site included photographs of men who looked “too depressed.” The military hirerd a screenwriter and teamed with a psychiatrist to write dialogue for typical sessions.
Users of the website are able to progress through a series of self-analysis surveys and listen to video testimonials from other soldiers. They are then able to enter a workshop that is led by an on-screen therapist. They are able to email their thoughts and questions. The on-screen therapist will respond with prerecorded video answers about anxiety and depression and also give tips on how to deal with those emotions.
Gahhm said the ideal therapist, who has yet to record the workshops, would be a multi-cultural female young enough to draw trust from her viewers, yet old enough to be viewed as credible. She would also be a psychologist who works for the miltiary.
“It’s a small window we’re working with to find this person,” Gahm said, adding that the military would not turn to an actress. “But we’re really trying to reach a young crowd who wouldn’t ordinarily turn to therapy.”
Video sessions are designed to increase in intensity as the users progress through them and allow them to save their workshops on their private computer. Eventually the hope is that users who have logged on over several weeks or even months will seek out traditional therapy and share the work they’ve done on their own.
Army Reserve Sgt. Mike Durant, 33, who fought in Al Doha, Iraq, about 20 miles south of Baghdad from February 2005 to January 2006, said the view toward therapy among the ranks was “comparable to what it was in the 1940’s.” During his tour, Durant, who now lives in Sacremento, saw a friend blown up by an inprovised explosive device. At the time, his wife at home was in the process of divorcing him.
After the death of his friend and with the divorce pending, Durant said his officers ordered him to visit a field Combat Stress Center for a mandatory 72-hour evaluation. Even before he returned to his battalion, he knew his commanders had lost faith in him. Anyone who was shipped to the shrinks, or sought treatment, was a liability.
“In their eyes, I was no longer reliable,” Durant said. “I couldn’t be trusted. I was unstable to them. Before I was sent there, I was fairly respected and highly regarded,” he said. After his time at the Combat Stress Center, Durant said, “Peers and friends didn’t want anything to do with me; it was like I had some sort of disease.”
Durant, who now receives treatment at a Veteran’s Affairs hospital in Sacremento, said the virtual therapy experiment might work for the soldiers who have already returned home. “In combat, there’s just not a lot of time to cry about things. You try not to think about them; you push it out of your head. If you didn’t, you wind up going crazy. But once you get back to the States, that’s when you unwind. You start processing. You realize what you did, what you felt. That’s when it becomes overwhelming.”
According to researchers, the psychological autopsies of troops who committed suicide, showed failed relationships at home were among the leading causes. That along with getting little sleep and traumatic events in combat and the close proximity of loaded weapons, makes those troops serving on the battlefield vulnerable to suicide.
Due to the percentage of soldiers returning from the warzones in Iraq and Afghanistan who are suffering from PTSD, mental health practitioners are gearing up for an influx of mental health patients into the VA system and the public health system. Though there is no documented evidence of PTSD alone leading to suicide, if it is left undiagnosed and untreated, it can and does play a huge role in problems as well as possibly playing a role in a soldier taking his or her life.
Hopefully this new website, as with some of the other websites being made available to soldiers, which allow them to remain anonymouse, such as Military One Source, the soldiers who are reluctant to see official help, will visit these websites and begin the process of healing from the trauma they experienced in the Warzone.