It’s been a little more than a year since I started writing about our Armed Forces. In some cases, highlighting their working conditions, simply about something that was in the news or just show our gratitude to them.
In the past one year, I have been able to get connected with quite a few Veterans and thus am privy to their conversations on social media. One such conversation was about the very less spoken about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
What is PTSD?
As the name suggests, PTSD is a disorder that arises out of some trauma one has experienced in their lives. As per Wikipedia Post Traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental disorder that can develop after a person is exposed to a traumatic event, such as sexual assault, warfare, traffic collisions, child abuse, or other threats on a person’s life. This subject piqued my interest and I have been trying to gather information on this since then.
At around the same time, I saw a movie called ‘Thank you for your Service’ and also came across an interview of a US Marine Veteran with Author cum Motivational Speaker Simon Sinek. It was heart wrenching to hear the Veteran speak about his difficulty of coping with the aftermath of functioning in conflict zones even after hanging his uniform. His daily life had been affected so badly that he had attempted suicide 4 times and somehow been saved. Finally, it was professional help that enabled him to return to normal life.
PTSD among Indian Armed Forces Personnel
India has world’s fourth largest standing army and a substantial amount of troops is always on active duty on the Line of Control in Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh and in a number of North Eastern States. As mentioned earlier, the conversations on social media about PTSD circled around the fact that there were some who would still have nightmares of their days of Counter Insurgency operations or certain things in their current lives would take them back to those days of violence and killing, though only a few admit it and most of them, especially the soldiers may not even realize that they suffer from such a condition.
Being drawn in to this subject, I checked on Google for information on how much the Indian Armed Forces personnel are affected by PTSD. Surprisingly there is NO data available on this. While if one were to look for data on PTSD among soldiers in US, one would get a % wise break up with relation to the wars that US fought. The absence of such data is a rather sad reflection of how much importance is given to this disorder.
Indian culture, a guard against PTSD?
The common argument that the culture of US is so much different from India and that our family and friends are our biggest support and hence it is easy for us to deal with such situations, may hold water for mild cases. As per an article in The Economic Times stated that according to a report by WHO, 7.5% of Indian population suffered from some form of Mental Disorder. This is just a testimony to the fact that we Indians too are vulnerable to mental illnesses and that obviously includes our Armed Forces personnel too.
True that these men signed up for these duties on their own, that they were trained to be strong, to put the Nation first and do what is expected of them in the interest of the nation. Yet, they are as human as anyone else. A death of a close family member may give some of us sleepless nights, or wake us up in the middle of the night. In some cases, their last words may even play on in our minds for days. How does one not get affected by the sudden and untimely death of a comrade in a terror attack or an avalanche or an aircraft crash, with whom one has spent weeks or maybe months? How easy is it to get over the trauma of seeing bodies strewn around you?
Why do we need stats on PTSD?
Maybe not every military man suffers from PTSD but a lack of stats!
Some may question as to why the obsession with stats? Why not? Stats is merely a reiteration of the fact that people have started speaking about it. Acceptance is the first step of treatment. A treatment of something is focused upon or given priority only when its existence is acknowledged. In India, mental illnesses like Depression are still looked down upon. So when a soldier, who is considered to be an epitome of courage and strength suffers from PTSD, his confession about his disorder may not necessarily be seen as a good sign. Thus, discouraging someone from opening up about it. PTSD often leads to problems in social adjustment, forgetfulness, stress and anxiety and in extreme cases of depression might force a person to resort to violence or suicide. It is imperative thus to have published Data on PTSD to enable preparation of a defence against it.
Help to deal with PTSD
PTSD can be treated with psychotherapy or medication or both and hence it is important that the affected person doesn’t suffer in silence because help may just be a phone call or email away. Some may suggest that Spirituality may be one way of dealing with the stress and hardships of working in the military. Maybe so. But how easy would it be for someone to be spiritually inclined when he is away from family duly aware of certain issues back home but helpless to do much as his duty comes first? How easy would it be for someone to be immerse himself in meditation when he is feeling lonely high up in the mountains in sub zero temperatures?
It is a proven fact that one of the most effective ways to dealing with PTSD is Cognitive Behavioural Therapy which involves talk sessions with Psychotherapist where the therapist helps identify the stressors that lead to distress and ways to deal with. Sometimes CBT in effective in itself and sometimes in combination with medication. And the first step to this is obviously approaching someone with the problem. But how does one seek such a help when one doesn’t see anyone else talking about it or mentioning such symptoms, if there is an inherent fear that talking about such symptoms may be a cause of ridicule or seen as a sign of weakness. However, it is also imperative to note that what works for one patient may not necessarily do so for another.
While it is easy for a soldier to kill a terrorist with a rifle in Close Quarter Combat, he may still need help to deal with the trauma of the death of his comrade, killed untimely in an Improvised Explosive Device blast. Shouldn’t this soldier made to feel comfortable enough to speak about all the thoughts that may haunt him, the nightmares of such incidents that he may have, the guilt that he may have of living on despite the death of his brother in arm, of maybe not having been able to save him? Is it right for us to assume that the one who can kill an offender without blinking an eyelid is capable of chasing away all his negative thoughts from his mind?
In the recently released film ‘1917’, there is a scene when the protagonist walks through mangled bodies, I turned my face away and closed my eyes. Such a reaction to just a piece of fiction, where I was not even present physically. It was simple and easy for me to just move away from facing that awful sight. Sadly, the military personnel do not have such a choice. They have to live through their experiences, both good and bad, without the option of even talking about the ill effects of the negative events. Makes me wonder, can someone be trained to become numb to the death and devastation around and not react to it or treat it as just another thing and have no memories of them at all?
And finally, does this soldier suddenly become a weak person if he is unable to blank out these impressions from his mind and accepts to be suffering from trauma? Does he have such people around him to whom he can talk about his distress and be assured that the person will understand that it is the reaction of a past incident that makes a person start smelling smoke and imagining dead bodies merely at the start of a particular song or the sight of a particular piece of cloth?
If one had to write about the culture and history of India, it would be impossible and unfair to do so in a 1000 word article. So is the case with PTSD; open to a lot of debate and discussion.
A lot of questions here, to be pondered upon. Hope to be back with some more views on this later.
Featured Image is an image from a Souvenir shop at a Memorial.