FALLS CHURCH, Va. — Post-traumatic stress disorder can be debilitating in some patients, but thanks to advancements in research and the continued training of mental health providers, treatments are getting better all the time.
Maj. Joel Foster, Chief of Air Force Deployment Mental Health, said treating PTSD has improved dramatically in the last 20 years.
“Twenty years ago we didn’t really know what PTSD was and didn’t know what to do with patients who had PTSD,” Foster said. “We tried to treat it like other anxiety problems. We put people in various types of therapy groups, which weren’t always very helpful. What we didn’t realize back then was that this approach was not effective in treating PTSD.”
He added that now mental health providers use evidence-based trauma-focused therapies. Two of these therapies are prolonged exposure and cognitive processing therapy, which are taught to all mental health providers in the Air Force. Part of the reason these treatments work is because they treat the cardinal symptom of PTSD — avoidance of memories and reminders of the traumatic event.
“What these treatments do is break the cycle of avoidance,” Foster said. “We work with the patient to expose them to the stimuli they are afraid of gradually over time and in a supportive environment, the person undergoing treatment gets comfortable, gains confidence, and resumes normal activities which helps them to make use of social supports for even greater improvements in their symptoms and overall satisfaction with life.”
“Most patients can make substantial improvement within 6-12 weeks with dramatic reductions in distress and symptoms,” Foster said. “For most the therapy is not as bad as they think it’s going to be. Nearly every person I’ve worked with has told me the anxiety and fear they have before treatment is always much worse than going through the treatment.”
“People with PTSD who don’t get help end up having behavioral problems over time,” Foster said. “In fact, untreated PTSD almost always leads to additional problems such as depression, substance abuse and domestic violence.”
The symptom of avoidance keeps many people from seeking help; however, PTSD typically doesn’t get better on its own and can really affect all areas of a person’s life as well as their quality of life if left untreated.
He said one of the big fears of service members with PTSD is that it could end their career, but that is not the case today. “After treatment and even during treatment service members can generally go back to work and resume enjoying their normal activities and routine,” Foster said.
PTSD awareness has improved a lot in recent years because more people are aware of what it is and education about PTSD is spreading. The more people talk about it and understand PTSD, the better equipped they are to identify it, and the more likely people struggling with it are to get the treatment they need.
“I think things are getting better. People are using services more frequently and there is greater acceptance of help-seeking while mental health stigma is decreasing. We have more work to do, but I think we’re in a much better position than we were just ten years ago,” Foster said.
If you, or someone you know, have been through a traumatic event, seek out a mental health provider and request a screening. PTSD does not usually go away on its own, and the earlier you seek help the sooner you can start feeling better and return to the life you want to lead.