Today is PTSD Awareness Day, a perfect opportunity to talk about the scope of this very common psychiatric disorder. Post-traumatic stress disorder is a mental health disorder that some people develop after experiencing or witnessing a life-threating event like combat. According to the PTSD Foundation of America, an estimated of 7.8 percent of Americans will experience PTSD at some point in their lives, while about 30 percent of the men and women who have spent time in war zones experience PTSD.
The most concerning aspect is that typically only 50 percent of PTSD sufferers seek treatment, and nearly 1,400 active duty service members committed suicide every year up until 2015.
Given that service members are one of the most vulnerable populations when it comes to stress-related illnesses, the American Red Cross Service to the Armed Forces (SAF) is dedicated to helping military members deal with emotional and mental issues like PTSD, among other things.
Helping military members to cope with every day stressors or to take control of their mental health before, during and after deployment (when a soldier travels overseas or across the country to serve) is especially important because there are a lot of factors involved in military life that can trigger a mental illness and sometimes asking for help is not easy.
“Asking for help is very hard because some people don’t want others to know that they are getting treatment or going to a program to solve their mental and emotional issues, says Jaime Cruz, SAF specialist for the Red Cross South Florida Region. There is a lot of stigma and taboos around this because it can be perceived as a sign of weakness and prevent further military career development if not addressed properly.”
SAF helps active military members and veterans, as well as their families, in every aspect related to the deployment cycle and offers resources aimed at guiding them on how to cope with their own feelings, reactions, concerns and thoughts in civilian life.
For families, this service is very much appreciated, since military members often come back home with a lot of issues that are hard for their spouses and kids to understand. When those difficulties are not handled correctly or guided by a specialist, it can take a toll on the family dynamics.
Given the complex nature of PTSD, SAF approaches every client’s case individually by partnering with different organizations and professionals that are specialized in providing psychological evaluations, marriage counseling, mindfulness workshops or one-on-one therapy, depending on what the person and his or her family needs.
For Cruz, a former military member himself, “It was very frustrating to have anxiety, sleeping problems and depression and not know what to do about it. I used to scream in the middle of the night without remembering anything the next morning. I also used to yell at my wife for everything,” says Cruz, who finally sought help and was diagnosed with PTSD.
Having a safe space to express his own feelings was crucial in his recovery because “there is no instruction on how to deal with our emotions.”
Resiliency and Mind-Body Workshops: Bouncing back to life
Among the many resources that SAF offers, resiliency and mind-body workshops are two of the most important.
Resiliency workshops provide a safe space of expression for service members and their families to acknowledge the things that they have been going through and allows them to speak freely about their experiences.
Mind-body workshops teach each participant how to connect mind and body using different techniques and exercises intended to train the brain in managing emotions and thoughts.
This workshop has been offered successfully in many facilities around Miami such as the U.S. Southern Command in Doral, Fla., where the last workshop took place. On this occasion, it was delivered for advocates in Family Services, who are in charge of providing services to military members inside a base.
Since advocates are responsible for reaching military members to join this workshop and other mental health programs, they took a session to learn firsthand how the mind-body workshop works in order to encourage service members to attend.
“The workshop that we do is educational and practical,” explains Carla Guillaume, Licensed Clinical Social Worker and SAF facilitator for the workshop. “We want people to gain an understanding of different mindfulness techniques that they can incorporate in their daily lives to be present in the moment, because in reality, most people do not take a break to see how they are feeling or reacting. Rather than that, people usually work in autopilot.”
Besides learning how to properly breathe and focus, participants learn how to do visualizations (which consists of picturing oneself as being successful in a task), guided imagery, journaling and other tools intended to calm the mind.
According to Guillaume, when it comes to finding the best way to cope with our emotional world, it is important that each person finds what works best according to individual needs, expectations and skills. The main goal is to connect with the soul, learn to enjoy every moment in life, and have a grateful attitude towards everything.
“Recovery is an ongoing process. It’s a lifelong commitment you make every day.”
If you or someone you know suffers from PTSD, or may suffer from PTSD, contact the Red Cross Hero Care Center at 1-877-272-7337 or visit redcross.org to get more information on how to join one of our workshops.
Written by Diana Bello Aristizábal