When it comes to helping a veteran with PTSD, families too often tend to focus the majority of their physical, emotional and mental resources into taking care of that person, inadvertently creating an imbalance that can both constrain the veteran’s healing and further stress the family.
Dr. Jo Sornborger, director of psychologic health for the UCLA Health Operation Mend program, specializes in the unique mental health needs of veterans and their families. She points out that a psychological injury such as post-traumatic stress does not mean a person is incapable of contributing to the family’s ability to function as a unit.
“It might seem easier to avoid including the injured vet into the daily routines of household, but this strategy comes at a significant cost to the whole family in the long run. It often leaves them drained of internal resources, resentful and can erode the self-worth of the injured veteran,” says the licensed clinical psychologist. “If the family recalibrates the resource distribution, the household will run more efficiently, be more cohesive and everyone will feel like they belong and have a purpose.”
Further, when a family funnels everything into the injured vet, the rest of the household tends to neglect their own health and well-being, she says.
The impact of this approach is enormous. More than 2 million U.S. men and women have deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan and other conflict zones since 9/11, and up to 20 percent now report symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. That means both they – and their families – must cope with the invisible wounds of war.
Symptoms of PTSD can include irritability, isolation, agitation, jumpiness, nightmares, sleep disturbances and substance abuse. All of these can take a toll not just on the person with PTSD, but on their loved ones as well. Operation Mend is focused on healing not only the physical wounds of war, but the invisible wounds as well, by providing advanced surgical and medical treatment, as well as comprehensive psychological support, for post 9/11 service members, veterans and their families.
When it comes to families, Sornborger says, self-care does not only mean taking breaks or indulging in the occasional pampering session. It means family members should tend to their own physical and psychological health on a regular basis, scheduling soothing, fun and emotionally rejuvenating activities.
“Although it may seem daunting or unreasonable, remember that the psychologically injured veteran is capable of contributing to the overall family functioning and it is crucial for the rest of the family to take care of their own health and well-being,” she adds. “This strategy can really help energize the entire family system.”