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Caregiving for veterans who have PTSD, at any age

Magnetoencephalography laboratory scientist Mihai Popescu points out areas of magnetic activity in a brain on a display at the National Intrepid Center of Excellence at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., March 16, 2017. (J.M. Eddins Jr./Air Force/Released)

Anyone who experiences extreme trauma can suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. The condition was acknowledged in 1980 by medical professionals after terms like “shell shock” and “combat exhaustion” had long been used for U.S. military veterans.

The disorder — now called PTSD — can bring nightmares, withdrawal, irritability, substance abuse and difficulty with intimacy.

The U.S. Veteran Affairs Department has a National Center for PTSD that offers information for caregivers.

Things to consider:

It’s not just for young veterans: PTSD can be cyclical. Someone who saw action in Vietnam, for instance, may not experience symptoms while busy with a career.

“With our aging veteran population, we do get new cases,” said Leslie Morland, a psychologist with the National Center for PTSD and a University of California San Diego psychiatry and psychology associate professor.

“Work is a coping mechanism that allowed them to stay focused. All of a sudden they retire, and for the first time some of these symptoms can come up.”

Also, PTSD has been discussed more widely in the past 15 years in regard to veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. That has prompted some older veterans to realize what their symptoms are.

“Their partner says, ‘Wait a minute, you have that, you do that.’ And all of a sudden there’s a label they can put on something they’ve been doing for a very long time,” Morland said.

Treatment is available: The VA offers two gold-standard therapies that have been proven to relieve symptoms.

They are cognitive-processing therapy and prolonged-exposure therapy. The treatment involves 12 to 15 sessions with a counselor, in individual or group settings. Anti-depressant medication is commonly prescribed, as well.

“Does that mean someone is cured? It’s a tricky question. In many cases, symptoms can improve to where they no longer have a diagnosis,” Morland said.

Caregivers make a difference: Social support plays a large role in recovery, resilience and prevention of symptoms.

“In the Defense Department, the idea is that if your family system is strong, the soldier is strong,” Morland said.

“In the VA, we are trying to make sure we are not just working with the individual veteran, but really acknowledging the family system.”

The VA is in the middle of a study looking at the effectiveness of treating PTSD in the context of a couple. It’s a four-year study at the San Diego VA that will include up to 180 couples.

More resources: Coaching Into Care is a national VA telephone service that aims to educate, support and empower family members and friends who are seeking care or services for a veteran. Call (888) 823-7458.

Help for family and friends: When someone you care about has PTSD, it affects you, too. Even if your partner, family member or friend with PTSD is getting treatment and getting better, you may still feel drained, worried or even frustrated. This VA webpage offers many resources.

Caregiving tips by diagnosis: This link offers advice specific to PTSD.

The Vet Center Combat Call Center is a 24-hour telephone line for combat veterans and their families to talk about their military experience or issues about readjustment to civilian life. Call (877) WAR-VETS.


© 2019 The San Diego Union-Tribune

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.