There’s a reason we’ve been talking about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and its effects on both the family and the service member. Not only is it important for all affected, but it NEEDS to be talked about. PTSD isn’t something one person deals with. Everyone in the family is touched in some way.
But what if it isn’t PTSD at all?
Many service members do have PTSD, but PTSD is not–and should not be–a ‘catch-all’ diagnosis for all mental health issues that service members face.
Unfortunately, this is often the case. What we might think is PTSD could actually be any number of other things: anxiety, depression, a sleep disorder, even adjustment and reintegration issues.
The key with PTSD, and with any other mental health diagnosis, is that there is a significant change from your normal. It affects day-to-day life in significant ways, and it lasts longer than one month.
What do I mean by that?
Well, take Paul* for instance. You met Paul in this blog post. He talked about how he felt like a square peg trying to fit in a round hole. Daily. All the time. He felt angry and irritable. All the time. It affected his sleep and appetite. It affected every corner of his life, from his employment situation to his life at home and his interactions with others. His life changed from his typical experience of it, and it was disrupted in very significant ways, altering his life.
This is what a PTSD diagnosis should look like. For a proper diagnosis, one must experience change from your ‘normal,’ with significant effects on your life lasting longer than a month.
But it isn’t always the case.
Just because someone is struggling with who they are in their life back at home, doesn’t mean they have PTSD.
Take Mark* for instance. Mark, like Paul, had several combat deployments. He had difficulty getting reacquainted with his “old life” when he came back from deployment; he felt sad, and had difficulty concentrating and sleeping for a few weeks after his return. He didn’t feel like he fit in.
Most of all, Mark says it felt like he simply didn’t know who he was after leaving the service.
The difference between Mark and Paul was that Mark was able to ‘snap out of his funk,’ and could enjoy time with friends and family. He may feel sad, irritable, and out-of-sorts at times, but it didn’t last. Mark could easily cheer up. But he, also like Paul, was diagnosed with PTSD.
Mark shared, “The diagnosis didn’t seem to fit. I felt okay most of the time. I was able to work, go to school, and spend time with my family. Sure, I had days when it was harder than others, but it didn’t take over, or anything.”
What Mark describes is known as an adjustment disorder. He was having trouble adjusting to his new reality.
This doesn’t mean he may not, at some point, struggle with PTSD. He may be triggered by events that could result in a diagnosis. He would need to consult with a professional to be sure.
Not everyone who has seen battle has PTSD, and not everyone with PTSD has seen battle. The main thing is to look for changes–impact on your life–and how long it lasts. This will help you understand the difference.
Mark and Paul are two diagnoses of PTSD. With two very different realities.
If you need help, or have questions about PTSD or symptoms, it’s best to seek the advice of a licensed professional.
This is the fourth post in a 5-part series on PTSD in military families. If you missed our first, second, or third post, check those out, then follow along for next week’s post, where we’ll meet a family who dug out of the trenches of a PTSD diagnosis, and see how they’re doing today. Can you successfully overcome PTSD?
Written by Ingrid Herrera-Yee, PhD, Project Manager, Military Spouse Mental Health Profession Pipeline