How combat vets' PTSD affects families

August 4, 2017 by Don Mcswiney, University of Calgary
Credit: CC0 Public Domain

Soldiers who experience the horror and terror of conflict often return home far different people than they were when they left. Many are angry, suffer from depression, harbour suicidal thoughts or attempt to isolate themselves from the world, hoping to avoid triggers that can instantly force them to relive their experiences.

While increasing attention has been paid in recent years to helping armed forces members cope with post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD), not as much attention has been paid to the experience and grief of intimate partners and families who experience trauma in trying to deal with the changes a loved one, coping with PTSD, goes through.

There is some research on the impact on partners, but not so much on ," says researcher Tara Collins, a Faculty of Social Work, Clinical Social Work PhD candidate who is conducting a new study on the impact of PTSD on .

"I wanted to look at the experience of both the partners and children. There are definitely not many services for children, and I'm finding that secondary trauma for the spouse and children is quite prevalent. The knowledge from the professionals isn't always there in terms of how to treat the secondary trauma or treat the families."

A huge issue: Nearly 40 per cent of Afghanistan mission personnel experience PTSD

Nearly one-in-ten Canadian military personnel who took part in the mission in Afghanistan collect disability benefits for PTSD. However, Collins, along with many other experts believe the number affected (but not, for example, collecting disability payments) is much higher. Some research indicates that up to 36 per cent of Afghanistan mission personnel are experiencing PTSD to some degree.

Collins recently received a prestigious Wounded Warriors Canada Doctoral Scholarship in Military and Veteran Health Research for her study that she says seeks to unpack the lived of families residing with a military member coping with PTSD.

Personal interest sparks research project

Her interest in the study sprang from personal experience, after her partner returned from Afghanistan and struggled with PTSD.

"We were at a military parade and they were shooting the guns type thing," recalls Collins. "His reaction was to hide my daughter in his arms, and he squeezed her really tight – as if to really kind of hold her and protect her. His father noticed that he was really holding her tight, and he kind of said, 'Whoa. Whoa.' He was in his own world – really trying not to get triggered – but he was being triggered."

Collins says when her partner returned from Afghanistan "there was a lot of anger." He struggled with alcohol use and isolated himself from the , he also wasn't sleeping and did anything possible to avoid having nightmares.

"He wasn't dealing with anything," recalls Collins. "He was just trying to ignore it as much as he could. I mean generally military members don't speak about their conflict experiences at home, and it's not always recommended that they do. However, the little pieces that I have heard are quite horrendous, and I don't blame him for trying to mask that. Eventually he got to a point where he basically didn't want to deal with it at all in terms of even living. I eventually said, 'No. We can't do this. We can't live like this.'"

Collin's partner was in agreement, and he agree to attend the eight-and-a-half week Bellwood Treatment Program in Ontario. The program included a brief four-day program for Collins and the children.

Study hopes to better inform counsellors and social workers about PTSD in military families

The road back from PTSD is long and Collins says that, not surprisingly, her "still has good days and bad days." This is why she believes her research is so important. While programs for military personnel are available, partners and children may not have the same access and may receive help from a social worker with little background or experience with this kind of trauma. Given her position as an "insider" to military life and someone who has lived the experience, she feels like she is in a unique position to help and in a unique position to find willing study participants. In the end, she hopes her research will better inform clinical and others who provide support to families, to help the family heal as well.

"I always believe that approaches to family practice can always be improved," says Collins. "The services for children, in particular, are not anywhere near where they should be. The understanding of what is involved for these families is not there. I think PTSD is quite complex in general, and then when you get into the systemic issues associated with the military, because it really is a very different way of living."

Explore further: New study examines gender differences in PTSD among military personnel

Related Stories

New study examines gender differences in PTSD among military personnel

March 2, 2017
A study of U.S. Navy healthcare personnel has shown that when comparing the prevalence of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among women and men who had similar deployment experiences, and especially combat experience, ...

How operational deployment affects soldiers' children

June 23, 2017
So many of us have seen delightful videos of friends and family welcoming their loved ones home from an operational tour of duty. The moment they are reunited is heartwarming, full of joy and tears – but, for military personnel ...

Oxytocin is being tested for treatment of PTSD and alcohol abuse

April 14, 2017
Nightmares. Obsessive thoughts. Avoiding particular places. Sudden outbursts. Fearing you're in danger. Survivor guilt.

Some patients with dementia may experience delayed-onset PTSD

July 7, 2017
Delayed-onset post-traumatic symptoms in the elderly may be misdiagnosed as falling under the umbrella of behavioural and psychological symptoms of dementia (BPSD), according to a recent review.

Australian-first trial offers faster treatment for PTSD

February 3, 2017
An Australian-first research program will help improve treatment for up to one million Australians with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Deployment stress impacts well-being through different mental health issues for female and male vets

June 1, 2017
Experiencing stress-related mental health issues following deployment exposures increases risk of reduced well-being in other life domains in the years following military service for veterans. Gender plays an important role ...

Recommended for you

Perfectionism in young children may indicate OCD risk

July 19, 2018
Studying young children, researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis found that kids who possess tendencies toward perfectionism and excessive self-control are twice as likely as other children to ...

Are you prone to feeling guilty? Then you're probably more trustworthy, study shows

July 19, 2018
It turns out your mother was right: guilt is a powerful motivator.

Finding well-being through an aerial, as opposed to ground-level, view of time

July 19, 2018
Do today and yesterday and tomorrow loom large in your thinking, with the more distant past and future barely visible on the horizon? That's not unusual in today's time-pressed world—and it seems a recipe for angst.

Younger children tend to make more informed decisions

July 19, 2018
A new study from the University of Waterloo has found that in some ways, the older you get the worse your decision making becomes.

Using an electronic device counteracts benefits of taking a break in nature, researchers find

July 19, 2018
Being in nature helps restore your brain's ability to focus attention on a task. But if you are checking social media on your phone or answering emails on your laptop – even if you are doing so while surrounded by trees ...

Depression-induced inflammation during pregnancy may impact newborns

July 18, 2018
The physiological impacts of depression on pregnant mothers may affect babies while in the womb and lead to changes in the behaviour and biology of newborns, finds new King's College London research.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.