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Student Research on Combat-Related PTSD on Families

June 17, 2010

Violence, depression, attachment disorders, memory loss, divorce, suicide -- even a partial list of the struggles returning soldiers diagnosed with combat-related post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are more likely to encounter is staggering. Making the situation worse is the ripple effect on the soldier's family, the members of which also suffer.

The impact of PTSD on soldiers and their families is the subject of the research project April Pearce, master of social work student at Baylor School of Social Work, presented at the School's MSW Practice Colloquium May 4.

The all-day event featured 60 presentations on student research topics that include such issues as human trafficking, working with children made vulnerable by AIDS, sexual abuse of children, depression in the elderly, family violence in congregations, and many others.

As the wife of a soldier, Pearce's interest in the struggles associated with combat-related PTSD comes not from her personal experience but from helping many of the families in her husband's unit.

"There are several soldiers who show signs of PTSD, but so often they won't seek help because of the stigma attached to it," Pearce said. "Instead, it's their wives who seek individual therapy to deal with their husbands' issues."

Pearce's research with 20 veterans shows some grim statistics about the breadth and depth of the condition. She identified 62 specific areas of struggle with the following as the top five: 70 percent still struggle with PTSD after diagnosis, treatment and medical management; 50 percent suffer from depression; 50 percent are forced to leave the military before the end of their enlistment; 40 percent suffer memory loss; and 30 percent are suicidal.

"There just isn't much literature out there on the impact of combat-related PTSD on Operation Iraqi Freedom/Operation Enduring Freedom soldiers and their families post-war," she said. "They have been going on for seven and nine years, with multiple deployments, which are unique to these wars."

Pearce said that more than 1.7 million soldiers have been deployed in these conflicts with more than 2 million deployments (because of multiple tours of duty). She said that research estimates that potentially half of the soldiers returning to duty meet the criteria for a PTSD diagnosis, but that only 6 percent to 12 percent are diagnosed.

"There is a huge stigma associated with PTSD within the military," Pearce said. "Soldiers are afraid they will get discharged prematurely, be perceived as weak, or that their commanding officer will treat them differently."

With very few options to manage the condition, the soldiers bring the disorder home with them, and the victims escalate. Pearce said there are twice as many divorces and three times as many multiple divorces, a drastic decrease in the ability to be intimate, and an increase in domestic violence among soldiers diagnosed with PTSD.

In her degree internships, April worked at Operation Home Front in Killeen, an auxiliary of Scott & White Hospital, and then moved to Metroplex Pavilion, an acute emergency mental health facility in Killeen with units for children, adolescents and adults. The majority of clients for both places were soldiers and their families.

April plans to continue to work in medical health facilities with soldiers and their families after her graduation. She hopes with her research and work she can bring increased awareness to professional service and health providers who serve this population of the need for more resources.

"As a military wife and health care professional, I don't hear a lot about readily available resources encouraging the spouse, children or even the parents of these soldiers to seek help for their own struggles associated with the veteran's PTSD," she said. "Multiple deployments are hurting these strong and proud individual soldiers and military families, and as social workers and health care professionals we owe it to them to provide help and support during their time of need."