Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has been commonly associated in the media with direct exposure to military combat, but in reality, traumas that can lead to PTSD can take many forms. During the course of military service, other kinds of traumatic events include knowing or seeing someone seriously injured or killed, remote combat operations, handling human remains, sending subordinates into line of fire who are then wounded or killed, experiencing military sexual trauma (sexual assault or repeated, threatening sexual harassment), and/or the daily work of casualty notification officers (those who inform military families that their loved one has been killed). People also experience many other kinds of traumatic events, both in and outside the military. In fact, trauma might be more common than you think.
According to National Center for PTSD, 60% of men and 50% of women experience at least one trauma in their lives. These types of traumas include, but are not limited to: sexual assault, physical assault, being witness to natural disaster, being witness to death or serious injury, involvement in serious accidents, and various traumas that can occur in childhood.
While Veterans appear to be at an increased risk of developing PTSD (National Center for PTSD suggests between 11-20% of Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF)/Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) era Veterans report PTSD in a given year, compared to an estimated 3.6% of adults in the US, according to NIMH), it is not uncommon for veterans to be diagnosed with PTSD related to trauma(s) that occurred outside of their military experience. Quite frequently I have seen veterans present with PTSD related to non-military experiences, including exposure to community violence, sexual assault before or after military service, accidents involving near-death experiences, and childhood abuse or other childhood trauma. Furthermore, there is some evidence to suggest that those who enlist in the military may have a higher rate of Adverse Childhood Events (negative life events that occur during childhood, including traumatic events) than those who have not served, though this area requires further research.
Although PTSD can affect anyone – adults, children, veterans, and civilians alike – it is important to remember that having a history of trauma does not necessarily mean an individual has PTSD; on the contrary, as mentioned above, 50% or more of adults have experienced trauma yet only 6.8% have been diagnosed with PTSD in their entire lifetime (NIMH). Some individuals have a history of trauma, but not PTSD, though they have other mental health diagnoses such as mood or anxiety disorders; whereas others may have a long history of various traumas and never develop PTSD or any other mental health issue.
Ultimately, it is only after a thorough assessment conducted by a mental health professional that you will learn if you have a mental health diagnosis and you can then speak with your provider about your treatment options.
So, get help if you need it.
If you or someone you know has a history of trauma and continues to have difficulties interacting with others, maintaining employment or relationships, or generally is frequently in distress, remember that you are not alone. Get the treatment you deserve to feel well, and encourage your loved ones to do the same.
Dr. Ashleigh Adams is a psychologist; she received her M.A. and Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from Temple University in Philadelphia and has worked with veterans at both the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System and the Corporal Michael J. Crescenz Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Philadelphia, where she completed her internship and postdoctoral fellowship. She received specialized training in the assessment and treatment of posttraumatic stress disorder, substance use disorders, chronic pain, and aging issues. Dr. Adams also has extensive experience in couples therapy, as well as treatment for mood, anger, and aggression-related concerns. Her theoretical orientation is cognitive-behavioral with particular emphasis on family and interpersonal functioning. Dr. Adams serves as an individual and couples therapist at the Steven A. Cohen Military Family Clinic at the University of Pennsylvania.