Noticing some PTSD-like symptoms in your soldier (and pointing them out) does not mean he or she is going to have a V-8 moment. The soldier isn’t going to smack himself on the forehead and run off to seek therapy with a smile and a great big “Thank you, Honey!!”
So how do you get a soldier to see a counselor? A therapist? A doctor?
SpouseBuzz reader Aubrey’s fiancé just returned from an eight-month deployment, his second. They are currently living on opposite coasts, which is making the reintegration even harder. She writes,
“The PTSD from his first deployment is bubbling to the surface again and I am encouraging him to talk to someone, anyone, about it, and I’m trying to be there for him as much as I can. It seems like I can’t do anything right anymore and I’m struggling.”
Aubrey says that she is hoping some of our SpouseBuzz readers can help. We are too. We understand that no two soldiers, Marines, sailors, Coasties or airmen are the same, so what motivates one might not make a difference to another. Only you know your own family.
Here are some ideas that our readers have used to help their families and their units. These might work for Aubrey and her soldier— and for you.
First, recognize you are dealing with a man.
Women do suffer from PTSD (check out this amazing video about female service members and PTSD from Macho Spouse).
But Aubrey’s fiancé is a man—just like 85% of all military members. Even though men are more likely to encounter stressful life events, depression and/or substance abuse, dozens of research studies show that men are less likely to seek help than women.
That is because we don’t socialize men to seek help. We socialize them to be tough, independent and emotionally in control—especially in the military. Researchers have found that the more men define themselves by traditional roles (like, uh, soldier?) the less likely they are to get help.
That doesn’t mean they won’t get help. This means you have some invisible barriers in front of you to be tackled.
Next, understand the stigma persists.
The persistent stigma around seeking therapy in the military is frustrating for everyone—and the military is working on it.
At SpouseBuzz, we hear from folks on the ground that the current attitude can go either way in a command.
On one hand, we hear that there are people in senior leadership positions who are openly sharing that they are seeking treatment for PTSD and TBI. They not only encourage those in their unit to do the same, they expect it—even among those in Special Forces and Special Operations. (Check out this revealing video that Special Operations Command just put out here.)
On the other hand, we hear that there are still leaders who shame anyone who says that they are having a problem. Shame on those “leaders,” I say.
If the attitude in your command is positive toward seeking therapy, they might be able to help. If the attitude is negative, there are lots of other avenues to pursue that the command doesn’t need to know about. Our readers suggest using Give An Hour, the local Military Family Life Counselor (a DoD sponsored counselor who does not keep records) via your Family Readiness Center, or Courage Beyond.
Then, realize soldier may not ‘know’ they have a problem.
Several readers mentioned that service members do not get help until they are “ready.” At first, that sounded depressing to me, like we expect fiancées and spouses and kids to live with the service member’s symptoms forever.
But after talking to a few PTSD sufferers, I don’t think that is what anyone is saying. Instead, it sounds like knowing you have PTSD is kind of like that movie The Sixth Sense (spoiler alert).
The filmmaker provides plenty of clues that Bruce Willis is, in fact, dead. But the viewer can’t really understand it until the end of the movie when it is shockingly obvious. Looking back, you realize you saw all the clues; you just didn’t connect them.
People describe PTSD the same way. That they thought their anger/vigilance/sleep problems etc. were normal. Until the moment they could see that they weren’t.
Even if someone told them they had PTSD, they didn’t accept that. That truth had to be revealed to them. If you experienced post-partum depression or you have a child on the autism spectrum, you may have experienced the same kind of reveal. Can you think of anything else like that you have to ‘come to know’?
So, frame it as the straight shot.
No one wants to hear they have a problem. And we know they might not be ready to hear it either. But that doesn’t mean you have to remain silent.
Barbara Van Dahlen, founder and president of Give an Hour, told us that ifsomeone is reluctant to seek treatment, family members or other concerned individuals can share their observations with the individual they are concerned about – stressing their care and concern.
Van Dahlen wrote, “For example they might say, ‘I can see that you are very depressed/anxious/angry. I hate to see you suffering. I really care about you and know that helped is available. Have you considered seeing a counselor/professional to determine if counseling might be helpful?”
Or, frame it as if it is about you, not them.
One of the tips offered from our readers is that you frame the counseling in terms of how you feel.
Dr. Ingrid Herrera-Yee, a research and clinical psychologist who is also a military spouse, also said that Aubrey could sit with her fiancé and discuss how his behavior makes her feel. Using “I” statements like: I feel scared.. or I feel so angry… are better than “you” statements like You are so scary! or You are completely out of control!
“Coming from a place of support and letting him know what she is going through might help to get him to at least listen,” said Herrera-Yee. “That’s the first step. Once he listens and gets how she is feeling, he could seek help.”
Many readers have told us that asking the service member to go with you to marriage counseling for your needs may help him edge into a willingness to go himself.
Or, frame it as what they “deserve.”
Another way you might talk about seeking therapy is in the guise of what the service member “deserves.”
You might approach it by saying something like, “No one works harder than you. I see how much you put into being a soldier every day. I know how much you have given them. You deserve to be happier. You deserve a good night’s rest. You deserve to feel better now and to put that burden down.”
Know that you CAN set limits.
Robin and her soldier were having problems following a deployment. So he moved out. When he wanted to move back in with the family, Robin made it a condition of his return that he start counseling.
“I told him that working through our problems or getting a divorce didn’t change what he had become,” wrote Robin. “In order for us to make any decisions he needed to become himself again and get help. He did have to do it on his terms. After that we came to better agreements as far as continuing his treatments.”
Van Dahlen agrees, “ If someone is engaging in destructive behavior, a friend or loved one can set limits requiring the person to seek help in order to maintain the relationship.”
You might say, “I know you are really struggling right now but you’re drinking is becoming a serious problem in our relationship. I will stand by you and support you while you get help – but I can’t stay in this relationship if you are unwilling to help yourself and our relationship.”
Connect with people like you.
Over and over, readers said that if your service member is struggling with combat stress or post traumatic stress, you need to take care of yourself. You need other people who are like you and who are going through the same thing you are going through. They caution that “other people” might not be a family member or a close friend. You might need to seek therapy for yourself — so call Military One Source.
There are many online groups and resources as well. Find one that suits you.
Dealing with combat stress, post traumatic stress, or a traumatic brain injury isn’t easy. You probably wish those things would go away on their own. But know that the research says that the sooner people deal with these things, the better the outcome.
You and your service member deserve a little happiness and getting to treatment is the next step.