The Department of Veterans Affairs reported that the number of Iraq and Afghanistan War Veterans seeking treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has jumped almost 70% in the last year (USA Today, 10/18/07). Of the 100,000 who have served, more than one out of seven have sought help for mental illness; half of those were diagnosed with PTSD.

PTSD has become quite popular in American psychiatry and in the public consciousness over the last 25 years. This diagnosis means that you’ve experienced a fear or horror that has sparked a cluster of 17 broad symptoms which include but are not limited to: intrusive thoughts, memory avoidance, and uncontrollable anxiety. The treatments of choice for this disease in the U.S. are potent drugs and counseling. The primary psychotherapy model emphasizes the importance of being re-exposed to the trauma until the repetition makes it loosen its hold on you.

PTSD, as it is diagnosed in the U.S., is unknown in other countries. After the 2004 tsunami in Southeast Asia, American mental-health experts predicted a second tsunami of mental illness in the form of PTSD and sent trauma recovery experts over. But the PTSD epidemic never hit. It wasn’t the nightmares or flashbacks that most of the population was concerned with; their deepest psychological wounds were not even on the PTSD checklists. Their greatest wounds were the loss of one’s role in the group. As long as people found a community into which they could reintegrate, they healed.

Ken Miller, a psychology professor who studies such traumas says cultural beliefs affect how we manifest illness and how we heal. In NYT Magazine (6/12/07), Miller said, “Can you imagine our reactions if Mozambicans flew here after 9/11 and began telling survivors to engage in a certain set of mourning rituals in order to sever their relationships with their deceased family members.” And in East Africa, not talking about distressing experiences is a sign of maturity.

I have no quarrel with these veterans who have been traumatized; I would simply like us to reframe the system that defines them as mentally ill and requires them to be disabled and pill-dependent to be eligible for benefits. Here is a revolutionary idea for dealing with the PTSD epidemic: don’t hire more counselors; instead invest in communities. Have the VA fund local agencies who can bring together veterans, teachers, counselors, plumbers, electricians, dancers, doctors, fishermen— anybody who can help sufferers focus not just on their illness — and help them identify their strengths and inspire them to mobilize those gifts. Instead of an illness model that promotes drug dependency and disability, let’s move to a community mental health model that brings people together to let the spirit soar and not the illness.

Last Mask of the Authentic Healer

Nov 30– Dec. 2, 2007
Franciscan Renewal Center, Phoenix, AZ
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