Trauma Is A Contagious Disease: PTSD & Military Spouses

Is PTSD contagious?

Mac McClelland tackles this difficult subject in a must-read article in this month's Mother Jones.

An estimated 100,000-340,000 veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan suffering from PTSD and somewhere between 115,000 and 460,000 with traumatic brain injury.

Many of these men and women have returned home to spouses and children who go on to develop what's known as secondary traumatic stress, developing symptoms that range from depression and alienation to what looks almost identical to that of the primary victim. "Basically your spouse's behavior becomes the "T" in your own PTSD," says McClelland.

"Trauma is really not something that happens to an individual," says Robert Motta, a professor of psychology at Hofstra University who has studied the impact of secondary trauma on the families of Vietnam vets. "Trauma is a contagious disease; it affects everyone that has close contact with a traumatized person" Studies over several decades of the spouses of veterans from Europe and the United States generally put the prevalence of secondary trauma in the 30-40% range.

That PTSD in one family member can cause others in the household to share similar symptoms shouldn't be surprising. Anyone who has lived with an alcoholic, a drug abuser or with mental illness can attest to how those afflictions shape the mood and behaviors of the household. Recovering from the fallout effect of these situations is still a mighty struggle, but he professional and self-help literature on the effects and cures for these groups is vast, as is the support network.   

PTSD, on the other hand, is not well understood and has no clear treatment program. Not everyone who faces combat or other traumatic stressors develops PTSD, not everyone who develops it manifests the same degrees of symptoms, and what helps one person is completely ineffective in another. While there is more awareness and sympathy for sufferers than there has been in past conflicts, the stigmas surrounding it are stubborn.

And that's the reality for primary trauma victims. Put the word "secondary" in there - remove it that one extra step from the battlefield -  and there's a vanishingly small amount of support.

Many spouses get by on an informal network of online forums and  support groups that sprang up in the aftermath of Vietnam, but a comprehensive approach is lacking, and not only is that unfair to the families of our veterans, it seems like a lost opportunity.

If trauma is a shared disease, can alleviating PTSD in the secondary victim help alleviate it in the primary victim? Should behavior modification or therapy be a shared, household effort? Can studying the effect of secondary trauma on the body and the brain teach us new ways to approach primary trauma?

These could all be dead ends, but with many, many thousands of American soldiers and families from seven decades of combat consigned to less fulfilling lives in the aftermath of their service, we have an obligation to lend them our compassion and our support. It is, literally, the least we can do.

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