The June edition of Vanity Fair magazine carries an interesting article about American troops and Post Traumatic Stress (PTS).Vanity Fair articles are long and can properly explore an idea - without resorting to a quick bang for the buck.
The main hook was recent figures show that while only 10% of American forces see combat, the US military has the highest rate of PTS in its history. Please readers remember that these are American figures for the American army. Why there is a difference between Britain and America deserves a couple of blogs and very few figures can be translated across to the UK experience. However, there were some issues that we might recognise.
The article describes PTS as exactly the response you would want to have in an emergency - "you want to be vigilant, you want to react to strange noises, you want to sleep light and wake easily, you want to have flash backs to remind you of the danger... ...anxiety keeps you ready to flight and depression keeps you from being too active". Indeed many would say that PTS is the normal response to abnormal circumstances.
Even so the author (and specialist alike) Sebastian Junger could not explain why some will get it and others won't. At Gardening Leave we provide a service to veterans with PTS, anxiety and depression and those with transition problems, regardless of the origin of their problem. We recognise that firstly anxiety and depression are part of the diagnosis of PTS and equally disabling, and secondly that there are many issues that contribute to being at risk of any of these problems.
We see every day that a starting point for recovery is contact with other veterans. This rarely quiet and often laughing band of brothers is the key to initial success. Later must come the move to a civilian identity, but the key is to find a civilian identity that is larger than, but includes, a veteran identity. At that point the veteran will join the 80% of ex-armed forces personnel who make the transition to civilian life without difficulty.
Junger in his article looks in-depth at the issue of transition problems and concludes that American society needs to heal itself if the veterans are to recover. Many a veteran will tell us that he misses the army, the social contact, the rituals, the sense of belonging, the feeling of family and indeed the feeling of excitement, status and meaningful activity. For at least 20% of those leaving the British army, the civilian world is lacking a lot of these elements. A job helps but not always, a return of confidence, rituals and structure, people to understand, accept but not judge and a reduction of the stigma associated with mental health problems (let alone veterans with mental health issues) would and do help a lot.
At Gardening Leave we have volunteers who provide a dose of decency - they are civilians who are prepared to listen, to share their time and their lives with the veterans. These are the civilians who help them build bridges to the communities around them and help them to understand and re-enter the civilian world. But I suspect that the Vanity Fair article raises an important point: What do our societies need to be like to increase the likelihood of a successful transition from military to civilian life?
So it is less what veterans need to do to recover but more what we might need to do in our communities that would improve our society and support veterans in their full potential lives.