This week a U.S. soldier left his base in Afghanistan to kill 16 civilians in their homes. After investigation, some experts have concluded that post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) could have played a role.
Dr. Antonio Bullon is a psychiatrist who has been running a mental health clinic for Latinos in Boston for the past 12 years. Recently, he has seen an increase in families of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans coming to see him. Dr. Bullon says that Latinos in this country are more vulnerable to PTSD.
“If you compare white soldiers, 20 percent come back with PTSD and, Latinos, 29 percent,” he says. “This is perhaps due to some of them living in poor violent neighborhoods. What causes somebody to have PTSD is factorable.”
Dr. Bullon says mothers and mothers-in-laws are making appointments with him, because they don’t understand what is going on with their loved one. They tell me that their son or son-in-law came back from deployment very angry and isolating themselves.
“The daughter becomes very anxious and the mother-in-law is upset, so I have to educate them,” says Bullon. “I tell them he is not purposefully being angry with you, it’s just a reaction. Encourage him to get help. Don’t take it personally.”
These are the major signs to look out for to determine whether you, or your loved one, has PTSD:
1. Change in behavior – He/she used to be in good spirits and always joking before deployment, and now he/she is very quiet and isolated. Heart starts racing or starts sweating around crowds. He/she is disturbed by noise and may go in a room and close the door.
2. Irritability – He/she starts yelling for minor reasons, or maybe is physically abusive with wife/partner.
3. Insomnia/nightmares – He/she either unable to sleep or wakes up with nightmares or flashbacks.
4. Change in appetite
5. Start drinking or using drugs – He/she tries to numb their feelings.
6. Apathy – He/she doesn’t easily feel moved by emotion; disconnected from loved ones.
These are some of the major causes of PTSD:
1. Traumatic event – Worst magnitude perhaps being witnessing your friend being killed; something like being a fighter pilot and not seeing people dying in front of you is not as traumatic, but it does build up over time.
2. Life circumstances – If you grew up in a poor area with violence, you will already have some trauma built up, so you are more vulnerable.
3. Keeping it to yourself – Culturally Latinos, especially men are used to being very stoic. They think things like, “I should not fear anything.” If they talk, they feel like cowards, or weak. A lot of them keep it to themselves, and that is worse. The pressure builds, and they come out with intense reactions of anger or panic attacks. Latinas in the military are a growing population, and they are more social. They are a little more protected, because they are more used to talking about it. They do a little bit better.
What are the best remedies for keeping PTSD under control?
1. Recognize it – This is the most important step. You, and your family, need to recognize it. Don’t feel like you are weak. Recognize that it is common and human to have this. It is not a sign of weakness. To be brave is to recognize that it is there. This decreases the low self-esteem.
2. Medication – Doctors can prescribe medication that can decrease the uncomfortable reactions from the trauma, like for the nightmares. People don’t have to go through them. Medications are available for sleep and irritability, and they don’t need to be taken forever, but only a limited time to help with the symptoms.
3.Group therapy – It is important to connect to other people that have the same problem. There are groups that get together to talk. The Department of Veterans Affairs offer groups to join.
4. Psychotherapy – Reviewing with a therapist what happened can help. Sometimes people feel they are guilty. They killed other people and they feel bad. Reviewing with a therapist what happened can help. Some get there PTSD triggered by watching the news. A psychotherapist can watch with you and talk about it to help you get over it little by little.
5. Spirituality – Some people are very religious, and sometimes they need to reconnect with their faith.
6. Family therapy – PTSD affects the whole family so it’s important to educate everyone involved.
7. Eye movement therapy (EMDR) – Done by psychotherapist. Patient is asked to move their eyes back and forth several times. This can decrease traumatic memories and symptoms. It has to be done for several sessions for several weeks, and done together with psychotherapy.
Dr. Bullon says to beware of over-medicating with pain killers such as, Oxycotin, which produce a temporary sense of euphoria and well-being.
“For a moment there is a relief, but unfortunately this does not solve the problem, and it is easy to get addicted after three to four days,” says Dr. Bullon. In severe situations it can help, but it should only be for inpatients for a limited time.”
If you suspect that you, or a loved one, has PTSD. Dr. Bullon recommends to contact your nearest Veterans Affairs hospital.
“Veterans have the right to receive treatments in VA hospitals,” he says. “In terms of substance abuse and mental health, they can approach any VA facility to ask for help.”
He especially urges Latino families to get help, because he says in general Latinos try to keep things in the family.
“They try to solve things in the family, and only go to doctors when they are hurting physically,” says Dr. Bullon. “They feel that they have to solve themselves and are very guarded.”
Unlike some American doctors that are used to only treating the patient with PTSD, Dr. Bullon encourages family participation.
“The wife is able to tell things that he is not,” he says. “Of course, it is up to the patient, but usually Americans don’t like involving the family. But we know for Latinos, it is essential and important for treatment.”