Iraq War veteran Nicholas Adam Horner’s murder conviction last week in the 2009 shootings of two people near Altoona and the case of Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, charged with killing 17 Afghan villagers, has put a spotlight on the mental health condition, post-traumatic stress disorder.
Lawyers for both men suggested that PTSD contributed to their actions.
Post-traumatic stress disorder is defined as “a mental health condition that's triggered by a terrifying event,” the Mayo Clinic’s website says.
Symptoms may include flashbacks, nightmares, severe anxiety and uncontrollable thoughts about the event, the clinic says.
“Acute emotional response following a a traumatic experience is common,” psychologist George Zitnay of Westmont said. “It is expected. Post-traumatic stress disorder is the continuation of anxiety-related symptoms and magnification of the symptoms.”
Although commonly associated with combat personnel, PTSD can strike anyone,” Zitnay said.
Zitnay is co-founder of the Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Centers.
Among civilians it is more common in women. Some suggest it strikes women more often because they are more likely to experience the triggering trauma.
Studies show nearly half of all rape victims will develop some level of PTSD, Zitnay said.
Other traumas may include severe physical assault, other sexual assault, serious accidents or injuries, shooting or stabbing, sudden unexpected death of family member or close friend, witnessing a killing or serious injury and having a child with a life-threatening illness.
There are three general characteristics of the disorder, Zitnay said. They are re-experiencing the trauma, avoidance and hyper-arousal.
Those with PTSD re-experience the event through nightmares, flashbacks and increased anxiety when reminded of the event.
Avoidance is characterized by seclusion, amnesia of the incident and taking pains to stay away from locations, people or objects associated with the trauma.
Hyper-arousal can create sleep disturbances, hypervigilance and exaggerated startle response, Zitnay said.
About half of the combat personnel serving in Iraq and Afghanistan reported at least one of the three criteria in Veterans Administration studies, he noted.
But often the symptoms don’t really become apparent until the service members return home, Zitnay said. Those injured who continue to serve may have too much going on to associate their symptoms with a mental condition.
Hyper-vigilance, for instance, is part of the job when a soldier is in a hostile environment, he said.
“The problem is recognized when you get home, but support in the local communities may not be enough,” Zitnay said.
“You get home to your family and suddenly you can’t sleep and you are pacing all the time,” Zitnay said. “There is just not enough help and screening and support when you get back home.”
A strong veterans outreach and an extensive National Guard and Reserve support network puts the local region ahead of many other areas, Zitnay believes.
“We have some of the better programs here in western Pennsylvania, especially in Johnstown,” Zitnay said. “We have programs for veterans and we are working on employment issues. There are opportunities for them to get together and have support.”
Free counseling is available for all veterans twice a month at the Veterans Leadership Program/Veterans Community Initiative facility in the Hiram G. Andrews Center, said Tom Cauffield of the Vietnam Veterans of America, Laurel Highlands Chapter. In addition, the organization can organize a rap group counseling session with a day or two, if required, Cauffield said.
“All they have to do is call us,” Cauffield said. “We can get a meeting anytime.”
Asking for help, however, is often difficult for service members, Zitnay noted.
“Many soldiers don’t want to go the the V.A.,” Zitnay said. “They don’t think there is anything wrong with them. They don’t want the label.”
Some authorities want to rename the condition, post traumatic stress injury, Zitnay said.
“If a soldier gets injured, he gets help,” he said.
Information: Veterans Leadership Program/Veterans Community Initiative phone 255-7209