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The Effects of Untreated Veteran PTSD

Military officer suffering with PTSD
The Effects of Untreated Veteran PTSD

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can have long-term effects on veterans. The symptoms of PTSD may not go away on their own, and they may cause additional symptoms that can negatively impact the veteran and their family. Most veterans with PTSD require expensive treatment for physical conditions such as high blood pressure, Type II diabetes, or chronic pain.

The VA defines PTSD as the “development of persistent symptoms with difficulty functioning” after facing life-threatening experiences. A PTSD diagnosis can occur in the event of death or severe injury caused by combat, a terrorist attack, violent crime, sexual assault, natural disasters, or violent personal assault.

According to the DSM-5, PTSD symptoms fall into four groups:

  • Traumatic intrusion: Recurrent dreams, flashbacks, or other psychological distress occurring suddenly or over a prolonged period in the aftermath of trauma
  • Avoidance: Avoiding everything that causes stress, including thoughts, feelings, or external reminders of the event
  • A complex range of negative emotions: Distorted sense of self-blame, persistent negative emotions (fear, guilt, shame), a sense of alienation, and negative cognitions (e.g., difficulty experiencing positive emotions)
  • Excessive arousal: Aggressive, reckless, or self-destructive behavior, sleep disturbances, or hypervigilance.

How Common is PTSD in Military Veterans?

Veterans who have PTSD vary according to their service era:

  • Veterans of Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) or Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF): About 11-20 veterans out of 100 (or 11-20%) have PTSD.
  • The Gulf War (Desert Storm): Around 12 Gulf War Veterans (or 12%) have PTSD each year.
  • The National Vietnam Veterans Readjustment Study (NVVRS) shows about 15 of every 100 Vietnam Veterans (or 15%) are currently being treated for PTSD. About 30 out of 100 (or 30%) veterans of Vietnam have had post-traumatic stress disorder. In a combat situation, what you do, who your enemy is, and where the war occurs all contribute to stress.
  • Military sexual trauma can cause post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The term refers to any sexual harassment or assault that occurs in the military. Both women and men can experience MST, which can occur in peacetime, training, or even war.
  • According to Veterans using VA health care, approximately 23 out of 100 women (or 23%) reported sexual assault during their service. Women account for 55 out of 100 (55%) and men for 38 out of 100 (38%) of sexual harassment incidents in the military. Male Veterans outnumber female Veterans by a wide margin. Therefore, although more women Veterans suffer from military sexual trauma, over half of all victims are male.

What Effects Can Veteran PTSD Have on Someone if Left Untreated?

Without proper treatment, PTSD can severely degrade a person’s life quality in the long run. PTSD can increase a person’s vulnerability to other mental health disorders and certain medical illnesses. But with support, treatment, and lifestyle changes, people can overcome their PTSD and live happy, healthy lives. Post-traumatic stress disorder can cause the following long-term problems if left untreated:

Military Vet in therapy with a doctor
  • A chronic pain condition
  • Various autoimmune diseases
  • Feelings of depression and anxiety
  • Withdrawal from social interactions
  • An inability to perform occupationally or academically
  • It reduces your relationship success
  • Divorce and separation
  • Addictive behaviors and substance abuse
  • A worsening physical state
  • Heart disease
  • Eater’s disorders
  • A self-harming behavior
  • Suicidal thinking and behavior

The Effects On A Vet’s Loved Ones

PTSD makes it difficult to have a relationship. Family members with even the best intentions may have difficulties living with someone who has nightmares or avoids social situations. Studies have shown that PTSD negatively impacts families.

Researchers found that Vietnam Veterans experience more marital problems and family violence. It’s more distressing for their partners. As a result, their children have more behavior problems than children whose parents do not have PTSD. Family functioning was the worst for veterans who had severe symptoms.

Why does PTSD have such a damaging impact? People who have veteran PTSD may have trouble feeling emotions. Some people may feel disengaged from others. This cause issues in the relationship and result in behavioral problems for their children. PTSD leads to numbing and avoidance that reduces parenting satisfaction.

The Effects On Their Physical Wellbeing

There is evidence that PTSD could lead to poor health through interactions between biological and psychological mechanisms. There are many laboratories throughout the world studying these mechanisms, including the National Center for PTSD. Current research suggests that trauma alters the brain’s chemical makeup. Changes in these areas may affect one’s health in a biological, psychological, and behavioral manner. 

A substantial risk of hypertension and atherosclerosis may result from such chemical changes, which may also explain cardiovascular disorders. Besides altered thyroid and other hormone functions, PTSD also reduces immunity and makes you more susceptible to infections.

In part, comorbid anxiety and depression may explain the psychological and behavioral effects of PTSD on health. Depressive disorders and other disorders are common in people with PTSD. Anxiety and panic may also contribute factors to poor health because of PTSD. It is relatively clear that anxiety increases cardiovascular mortality and morbidity, but the mechanisms are unclear.

The Effects On Their Quality Of Life

Despite the limited number of quality-of-life indicators in PTSD, the existing studies paint a consistently sad picture. We associate PTSD with an increased likelihood of unemployment among Veterans who served before OEF/OIF. A survey of over 5,000 Veterans in Compensated Work Therapy found PTSD to hurt employment prospects.

A connection exists between veteran PTSD and homelessness. PTSD increases the risk of homeless veterans becoming homeless again by 85% (O’Connell, Kasprow, & Rosenheck, 2008).

PTSD can cause marital instability. Both male and female Vietnam veterans have high divorce rates because of PTSD. A study by Riggs, Byrne, Weathers, and Litz (1998) indicates that couples with a male veteran of Vietnam suffering from PTSD are more likely to contemplate separation or divorce.

PTSD is not exclusive to Veterans. One study showed that a PTSD diagnosis increased the probability of being unemployed by 150% among US adults (Kessler, 2000).

Seeking Help For Veteran PTSD

The US military provides substantial opportunities for a sense of community, belonging, and understanding. Veterans moving from military to civilian life need to re-establish a new sense of community. It’s common for service members who separate to face many challenges, including developing a new sense of connectedness. We poorly understand the role of social connectedness in promoting a positive transition outcome.

When you have trouble getting your life back under control because of disturbing thoughts and feelings about a traumatic event, please speak to one of our mental health professionals. Seeking treatment as soon as possible reduces the likelihood of veteran PTSD symptoms getting worse.

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