ORLANDO, Fla. (CNS) — Many of America’s veterans suffer from mental health issues when they come home from combat, and for many of them, the psychotherapy they receive isn’t enough to help them recover.
The Florida Catholic newspaper spoke with trained counselors who specialize in treating post-traumatic stress disorder with various methods — including faith-based solutions — to spread awareness that help is always available, and that hope is always there.
Nearly 3.5% of American adults are likely to suffer from PTSD, with women two times as likely to experience this than men. With an average of 20 American veterans committing suicide each day — approximately 7,000 each year — professional help in the veteran community is needed. Soldiers who have seen frontline skirmishes, such as gunfire, explosions and the deaths of fellow soldiers, may face a long road to mental recovery.
Father Stephen Brandow of Alexandria, Louisiana, who has been working in the Department of Veteran Affairs for 31 years assisting Army veterans with mental health issues, said when veterans suffer from PTSD their “brains get reorganized — filled with frustration and anxiety and anger.”
He believes healing starts with a conversation from friends and family who should intervene if the returning veteran acts strangely. “Forcing a person to talk, even if it makes an argument will save their life,” he said.
“Combat vets should be made to feel valued. Their life is just as important as anyone else’s. Sometimes it takes a long time to come to terms with (trauma),” the priest noted.
Chris Venezia, a registered family therapy intern in Orlando, disagrees with the notion that many veterans should live with the disorder because they believe they can cure it on their own terms. “When it comes to faith and PTSD, treatment is one of the biggest hurdles we have,” he said. It is wrong that “they should endure PTSD … and suffer unnecessarily.”
John Cothron, a veteran himself and a licensed counselor in Orlando, never includes the “D” in PTSD for the potential distress it might cause. “I only say post-traumatic stress. I leave out the disorder. It can be relative to each individual.”
Treating veterans can sometimes be “hard because the adrenaline has been so pumped up, their body is almost going through a withdrawal because there is no need for it,” Cothron said of the biological reasons behind the mental condition.
He believes veterans practicing mindfulness is a major step in the right direction. “Being aware of how you are feeling in any moment,” he said, will help the veteran remember that a situation is not as detrimental as it may appear.
He also said sleep is important because the “unconscious part of your mind is actually sorting everything from the day.” He said when somebody has a traumatic event, “that sleep is disrupted, so they don’t get into that deep REM sleep.”
Along with assisting patients in counseling sessions using various psychological techniques, Cothron, Venezia and Father Brandow apply the power of prayer to navigate their sessions.
Helping veterans to know they have the power to change how they feel and how they perceive their experiences is at the core of Father Brandow’s faith-based meetings.
“The heart of Christianity is suffering,” he said. “That is the essence of the Christian experience.”
Cothron also brings his religious faith with him to every meeting, saying he encourages patients to “have a prayer life and to meditate on certain Scriptures. The body and the brain respond to the hope that is there and is actually able to work on healing itself,” he added.
Father Brandow has created a spiritual group for veterans that involves keeping a spiritual diary and being interested in mindfulness without judgment of the present and the past.
The best advice the priest has for those helping veterans isn’t only a principle many therapists use, it is a value Christ practiced, as well: “Simple compassion.”
Beaulieu is on the staff of the Florida Catholic, newspaper of the Diocese of Orlando.
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