Tuesday, May 28, 2013

PTSD: Better Think a While

Time for a little confession. First, I have never served in the military, and I have nothing but the deepest thankfulness and respect for those who have, and do. My late father was in World War II, and fought in the Battle of the Bulge. Dad didn't like to talk about his war service, and given what those who did talk about it say, I can understand why. As Civil War General Sherman is supposed to have said, "War is hell."

But since then, and maybe all the more so since Vietnam, there seems to be more and more focus on the psychological condition of veterans when they come back home and try to re-adjust to civilian life. This was not an unknown issue in previous generations, as evidenced by the World War II-era classic film, "The Best Years of Our Lives," starring Dana Andrews and a host of many popular stars of the day. The movie focused on four veterans returning home and trying to fit into their families and work again. Very poignant.

But I have been tempted to be somewhat dismissive of today's "Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder," mostly due to my reaction against the way "psychobabble" in the schools has (in my opinion) messed up an entire generation of kids and today's adults. Many of you no doubt have heard or read the criticism or concerns that get expressed about trying to medicate today's schoolchildren (especially boys) into being docile little creatures. Some authors who have written on this subject—including a few psychiatrists—raise the concern that the so-called "self-esteem" movements and other ideas given to parents in the past 30 years or so have managed to raise up a generation of narcissists who can't handle life in the real world.

It's easy to knee-jerk and react in that way when we hear more and more reports of PTSD. The news media likes to make a crisis out of everything, and it seems like some within the mental health establishment like to make a crisis or a syndrome out of everything to explain any and every aberrant human behavior. (Yes, I know this is a sweeping, broad brush statement. Hang with me. I'm going somewhere with this).

The 24 hour news cycle and non-stop coverage of this issue and the reports you hear from it give the impression that it is widespread if not quite epidemic. It could possibly be argued that the "Greatest Generation," the World War II generation, by and large didn't react to their experiences like today's generations. Like I said, my dad didn't like to talk about it. But he lived with it, and by and large was a good father and good provider. He did have his issues, but he had those before he ever went off to war. I have known many other World War vets in my family or among friends, and because most of them didn't really like to talk about it, it's hard to say what they thought of or endured in their dreams at night, or when memories surfaced. But they didn't let it incapacitate them. At least the ones I knew did not. But I have no doubt in every war, there were many who were permanently emotionally scarred by the experiences they endured. They did not have the support structures that are available today, and from what I can see from news coverage, the support structures are still lacking.

The long and short of it is that I want to re-think this issue much more carefully and deeply before making any judgments about it. There are so many things that play into this. Different generations, different values, different parenting styles, different levels of exposure to difficult situations, quality of training etc. To the generations of veterans today coming home after serving valiantly on foreign shores, many coming back wounded or maimed, their pain and their hurt is real. They need love, help and understanding, not dismissiveness. I need to separate what I see on the boob tube and read in print media, and hear more from what the soldiers say themselves, and what those with expertise in the military have to say about it. And listen with love, compassion and caring.

I wish so many of the World War II generation weren't leaving us. Most of the World War I generation are gone. I wish more of them had shared their experiences. It is more than possible that PTSD has been there all along in every conflict, but it was just unrecognized. Perhaps some of them have left a record behind, and I just haven't read it or encountered it. You could hear much on the excellent World at War series narrated by the late Sir Laurence Olivier, but I imagine even that epic series only scratched the surface of how awful the war really was. I have an enormous amount to learn on this subject, all the more reason to avoid knee-jerk reactions when seeing or hearing news coverage of this issue, and then having it made even worse by politicians who cynically use the veterans for their own political purposes. We're dealing with human beings here—who gave their all for their country. In this hyper-political age, that's what we all to easily forget. Human beings with hearts, souls, minds and emotions. And pain.

Again, to reiterate a point—it is possible that earlier generations because of the hardships of the Depression and basic hard life were able to endure traumas that a more sheltered generation had not had to endure. But join me in waiting, and listening, and trying to filter out all the chattering classes. Let's hear what the men and women of our armed forces have to say. Their stories are what we need to hear.

I'm learning, but sometimes it is a slow process.  

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