Archive for the ‘ptsd’ Category

College-aged veterans 6 times more likely to attempt suicide

August 4, 2011

Today USA Today reported that college-aged veterans are six times more likely to attempt suicide than other college students, and are at an even higher suicide risk than veterans who go to the Veterans Affairs (VA) office for help with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms.

As the article notes, research on veterans and PTSD is usually done on veterans in general, but not focused on young, college-aged people specifically. Though the results of this research are jolting, they aren’t necessarily surprising. Studies show that the brain doesn’t fully mature until a person reaches their mid-20s, and that adolescent brains have more difficulty dealing with stress than adults whose brains have fully matured. Coping with trauma is that much more difficult for a younger veteran.

And it’s unclear whether colleges have the health services needed to help treat PTSD symptoms. Some colleges have VA offices, and the VA has a program called “VetSuccess” to help veterans transition back into civilian life, complete with an on-campus arm, but this program is only at eight campuses nationwide. Student health services alone can’t be relied on — at my alma mater, the counseling services available carried a two- or three-week wait time and were only free for the first few visits.

Aside from a lack of treatment options, trying to assimilate back to civilian life at college — possibly away from your support system — heightens the feelings of isolation that already come with PTSD. Luckily, there are chapters of Student Veterans of America (SVA) across the country, which help fight that feeling of isolation and the stress of adapting to a new environment by connecting student veterans on campus and providing other college- and career-related resources.

Some cities do have specialized programs for young veterans, such asVetSTRONG in San Francisco, and in 2008 the Department of Labor started the “American’s Heroes at Work” project to help veterans with traumatic brain injury and/or PTSD find jobs after returning to civilian life. More attention is being paid to young veterans, especially as they are re-deployed for multiple tours of duty, but a lot of these organizations are still in their infancy. This means the programs themselves might be smaller and less accessible to some vets, or that young vets might not be aware they exist.

So while there has been progress recently (likely in response to research that said one in five veterans returning from duty in Iraq and Afghanistan have symptoms of PTSD), many college campuses still simply don’t have the proper tools to deal with combat-related PTSD. The authors of the study suggest colleges increase screening for PTSD if students have been in the military, possibly catching signs of suicidal tendencies or behavior early on. That, along with a widespread and dedicated attempt to raise awareness about student veteran support groups and access to treatment resources, will be key to lowering this high rate of attempted suicide among college-aged veterans.

Do you think you might have PTSD symptoms, or know someone who does? Click here and read about the symptoms of PTSD.

Do you think someone you know is suicidal? Click here and read about suicide prevention, and pay special attention to signs of suicidal behavior that are specific to veterans. Click here for more information and resources about suicide prevention.

The VA has a 24-hour suicide prevention hotline that you can call if you are either contemplating suicide or a family member or friend might be contemplating suicide: 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

Click here to start your own chapter or affiliate a current student veteran organization with SVA. 

Find your local VA center by clicking here.

Joke’s over: Prison rape is a serious problem, needs answers

May 12, 2010

While watching Saturday Night Live, hosted by Betty White, this past weekend, I couldn’t help but be torn about the skit that used prison rape as a punchline.

The idea of Kenan Thompson and this grandmother Betty White — the “McIntoshs” — teaching some punk kids a lesson about prison has the potential for some laughs, as it did when it started out with Thompson recollected a childhood memory that mimicked the plot from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. But when the “kids” laughed at this, he responded that inmates would be:

Wonking your willy, touring your chocolate factory, and giving you an everlasting buttstopper. They gon ride you like a Wonkavator — sideways, slantways, three ways and ten ways.

This is when the uneasiness starts to settle in, and I can’t help but think about how prevalent prison rape actually is and how it isn’t funny for the people who are being raped by fellow inmates or by staff members in prison.

The numbers vary, from a 2007 study done by the Bureau of Justice Statistics that estimates 4.5 percent of the prison population was sexually assaulted in 2007, to the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003, which estimates that of the total prison population, at least 13 percent of inmates in the U.S. have been sexually assaulted in prison.

That means anywhere from one in 20 inmates to 1 in eight prison inmates — if not more — have been sexually assaulted in prison. Recently, there has been more talk about implementing the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003, which has a zero-tolerance policy for sexual assault in prisons.

The two main categories of prison rape are inmates sexually assaulting other inmates and staff members sexually assaulting inmates. As Amanda Hess outlined on The Sexist, two major ideas to combat these problems are separating inmates based on weight (therefore inmates can’t prey on other inmates who are substantially smaller and weaker than they are) and better employee screening (so that employees are hired who will focus on stopping prison rape and following the rules).

She also mentions how these ideas aren’t really new, but just difficult to get off the ground:

Prison rape doesn’t keep happening because anti-rape activists are lacking in good ideas, but rather because correctional facilities have been reluctant to implement them.

We are still focusing on the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003, and it’s already almost halfway through 2010. Some people assert that prison rape isn’t a priority because criminals are second-class citizens, committed a crime, and for some reason then deserve to be sexually assaulted, but that assertion doesn’t help rehabilitate criminals at all.

In fact, condoning prison rape, as Toni Doswell explains (I highly recommend reading the entire article), causes physical and psychological harm to the inmate and also harm to society as a whole. Most of the time, prison should be a place for rehabiliation so inmates can rejoin and become productive members of society. Prison rape, however, adds an extra burden to the prison system and the public that makes this goal more difficult to achieve:

Prisoner rape also costs taxpayers dearly in the form of higher rates of recidivism and re-incarceration, increased violence, higher rates of substance abuse, lawsuits brought by victims, mental health services, and medical care including treatment for HIV and other sexually transmitted infections. These high cost have still failed to inspire most facilities to implement even the most basic measures to address the problem.

So while we joke around about “not dropping the soap” or “becoming someone’s bitch,” the reality is that those people in prison, those people we use as the punchline for a joke, can’t help themselves within the confines of prison. The victims of sexual assault — often young, new, weak, small, thin, homosexual, or transgender inmates — are often helpless within a system where the rate of staff sexually assaulting inmates rivals the rate of inmates sexually assaulting other inmates.

Whatever the prison system is supposed to be doing, it isn’t — it often turns its back to inmates and allows them to be sexually assaulted, even as punishment:

Male inmates have testified that they were forced into cells with known sexual predators as a form of punishment for unrelated misconduct.

And how is one to try to report being sexually assaulted or raped when A) the person who sexually assaulted you might be a staff member whose word will likely be taken over yours and who might continue to target you if he finds out you are the one who reported him; B) when you might be put into solitary confinement for your own protection, which is the same place people get sent for extreme misbehavior because it is so psychologically taxing and unbearable; or C) when the report might cause trouble with your family or personal relationships, such as a spouse or partner.

I’m reminded of an episode of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit when a recently released parolee targets Detective Benson and tries to frame her for murder. When they finally come face to face, he says that he is convinced she told someone in his prison to rape him, and he wanted her to go to prison for a crime and endure the same humiliation and suffering.

The grudge stemmed from her saying that “a pretty boy like him is going to be real popular in prison,” which was meant to scare him and ultimately made him think she had planned the entire sexual assault. But it’s casual slips like this — where we try to use prison rape as a scare tactic or as a joke — that avoid addressing the serious and systematic social problems that prison rape creates for prisoners and society as a whole.

Although maybe, as in the “Scared Straight” skit from SNL, the prison system is reluctant to adopt a zero tolerance policy on prison rape because it’s one of the best scare tactics they have in trying to deter crime. Except it’s only hurting the criminals who are vulnerable based on size or sexuality, causes a huge burden on society, and in some cases leads to murder in prison — so instead of advocating this behavior, we need to start eliminating it.

grouping shootings under PTSD is easy way out

January 13, 2010

In Tuesday’s Harvard Crimson, three Arab-American students wrote an opinion piece where they claimed that the person responsible for the Fort Hood shootings, Maj. Nidal Hasan, was being targeted for his religion rather than the true motive for his actions — PTSD. I find this article problematic for a number of reasons — its misunderstanding of PTSD, the way it blows off his ties to extremist Muslims and — most importantly — the way that it groups Fort Hood with a number of other military shootings, alleging the common link is PTSD, when in reality these shootings cannot be blanketed with PTSD.

First of all, PTSD is not the same as depression or an anxiety disorder. The specific characteristics of PTSD are reliving events, hyperarousal and avoidance. Although avoidance is a common symptom that could be seen in depression or an anxiety disorder — avoidance is avoiding situations that cause reliving of traumatic events, so likely this means a lot of seclusion and anti-social behavior — the other two main symptoms are related to experiencing a trauma.

PTSD is common and not regulated to veterans — anyone who experiences a traumatic event (a car crash, watching a loved one die, being raped) can relive the event in their minds and experience hyperarousal, which is when people are on “high alert” and are much more aware of their surroundings, perhaps being on guard all the time or easily startled by loud noises.

For veterans, PTSD manifests itself most often when soldiers deal with combat. The things they see, hear, do in combat are often scarring and horrifying — killing someone, treating wounds for children who were tortured by the enemy, watching friends and mentors die in the line of fire — but Hasan had never seen combat. The Crimson’s op-ed authors claim that just hearing these horrific stories from other people caused him PTSD, but I think it would more make him depressed or nervous/anxious to be deployed. PTSD results from a first-hand experience, not a second-hand one.

Second, they make the claim that people are too easily diving onto his Muslim heritage as a motive for these killings. An understandable criticism, but one that simply can’t be ignored in this case. One can’t ignore the fact that he had contact with a radical Muslim cleric or that he felt like Muslims should be allowed to leave the military as conscentious objectors. The importance he put on his religion makes it impossible to ignore as a possible motivation, especially when he connected his religion to his deployment.

Third, all cases of military shooting cannot just be thrown under the category of “PTSD” — this article blankets several incidents of military personnel opening fire on other military personnel without mentioning the distinct differences that make it inaccurate to label their causes all as “PTSD.” I think it’s all too easy to slap “PTSD” on something and then neglect to look deeper into the cause/motivation.

The cases mentioned are:

1. Fort Bragg, Oct. 27, 1995: William Kreutzer, Jr. opens fire on soldiers at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. Random act of PTSD? Not exactly — Kreutzer had been deployed, and he had an obsession with certain killing rampage statistics and was often ridiculed and teased by soldiers. Whether he had psychological issues before deployment or not, he reportedly gave several warnings that he was going to snap and even made a telephone call the morning of the shooting to warn that he was going to open fire. His threat was dismissed because he was deemed a “pussy.” The resulting event is as much the consequence of ignoring serious threats and ridiculing as a person who had serious psychological issues.

2. Camp Pennsylvania, March 23, 2003: U.S. Army Sgt. Hasan Akbar launches a grenade attack on fellow soldiers sleeping in tents, then fires his rifle as troops wake up from the attack. Akbar was with troops in Kuwait. He had a documented history of mental illness, and he also reportedly felt extremely ridiculed by his fellow soldiers. His story mimicks Kreutzer’s in that both men had a history of mental illness that seemingly began before deployment, and both were mistreated by their fellow soldiers. Akbar shared something with Nidal Hasan, in that he was Muslim and torn about the thought of killing fellow Muslims.

3. US. National Guard Headquarters in Tikrit, Iraq, June 7, 2005: Two soldiers are killed when a claymore mine detonated in the window of the room where they were playing the game Risk, and Sgt. Alberto Martinez is originally charged with the crime. Martinez was eventually acquitted of the charges, but there was no mention of PTSD in the prosecution or defense’s arguments. The prosecution focused on Martinez’s rocky relationship with one of the victims, Capt. Phillip Esposito, in which arguments between the two were witnessed by many before they were deployed to Iraq. The defense argues that the evidence in circumstantial. No one mentions PTSD, although the possibility of a mental disability such as Martinez being mentally retarded is mentioned. It’s also hard to say PTSD is the root of this attack because no one was ever convicted, and it’s dangerous to assume Martinez was the person responsible even though he was not found guilty of the crime.

4. Tinker Air Force Base, Feb. 25, 2008: Dustin Thorson kills his two children after an altercation with his estranged wife, Michelle, and then kills himself. This is the first case of PTSD that I found in the list of the authors’ supposed PTSD cases. Thorson was deployed to Iraq from July to October 2006 and had PTSD, and it is likely that his irrational and tragic response to an angry argument with his wife is because of his PTSD. He returns to combat mode and responds to a difficult situation the best way he knows how, using threats and eventually violence.

5. Camp Liberty, May 11, 2009: Sgt. John Russell gets into a fight at a clinic in Camp Liberty in Iraq, stole a weapon from a fellow soldier and went back to the clinic and opened fire. Five soldiers were killed. This is another more relevant case involving PTSD, as Russell was seeking counseling and was on his third tour of duty in Iraq. He believed he was being run out of the military, but the case is so recent that details aren’t as prevalent as the aforementioned cases.

What we can learn from putting these five cases under a microscope, and also the Fort Hood shooting, is that it’s not as easy as blaming incidents on PTSD and ignoring other important factors. The fear of having to choose between your religious identity and national identity, and possibly kill people who don’t share your citizenship but share your religious beliefs, is not PTSD, but it’s a valid concern that can’t be swept under the rug.

Feeling like an outsider and being ridiculed to the point of no return is reminiscent of the motive behind many school shootings, and it’s a plausible motive for a few of the shootings mentioned in the Crimson’s op-ed. You can claim PTSD, but you’re ignoring the hypermasculinity of the military, the way that threats are taken as non-issues and the fact that PTSD is not a synonym for all psychological issues.

The interesting thing about the fourth and fifth cases is that both men were deployed to Iraq and committed murder in fits of rage after arguments, immediately resorting to violence. One in five soldiers who returns from Iraq reports symptoms of PTSD, and the Crimson is right to shed light on this topic because soldiers are being sent on multiple tours of duty, which only reinforces their PTSD and makes it more difficult to separate themselves from a combat lifestyle.

In sum, I think it’s irresponsible to focus on PTSD as the sole issue while ignoring other factors in incidents when soldiers attack their fellow soldiers. It’s a scapegoat that allows people to ignore other possible motives, and ignoring other motives could be detrimental to preventing future soldier-soldier attacks not motivated by PTSD. Giving Nidal Hasan’s religion attention is not an attempt to disgrace all Arab-Americans or Muslims, but rather it’s an appropriate step in understanding Hasan’s motivations as a whole.