Appropriate responses to the needs of returning veterans will include:
• A strength- and recovery-based focus
• An empowering, skill-training approach
• Careful, individualized, respectful, veteran-specific assessment and treatment planning
• A primary emphasis on stabilization and development of internal and external resources
• Education for veterans and families on the physical, cognitive and emotional aspects of trauma and substance use disorders
• Assertive linkage to ongoing support within the community—and in the larger military and veteran community nationwide
Effective responses to the needs of veterans with post-employment stress effects include a consistent approach that integrates trauma-informed addictions and mental health care, but what does that mean? It means that when treating a veteran for mental and/or substance use issues the clinician must realize that the traumas experienced have changed how the person feels, reacts and perceives the world. These changes are normal reactions to abnormal events. Unfortunately, they often persist even when the danger is past. This is the mind’s way of making sure the body survives. In order to help consumers to regain a sense of balance, we must create an environment of safety, trustworthiness, choice, collaboration and empowerment.
Safety means ensuring physical and emotional safety not only in the treatment session, but also in veterans’ daily lives. Even Abraham Maslow believed that safety helped form the foundation of mental health and wellness. When people do not feel safe, they are on guard, and they cannot rest well which negatively impacts their health, mood and relationships which could be supportive. So the next question I am often asked, is “What do they need protection from?” They need places where they are not subject to judgement or evaluation, and are not concerned they will have to defend their actions or the actions of the military in general. If they have been deployed for a while, they need a community that can help them feel less like a stranger in a strange world. They need places where people understand what they are going through, who have survived the nightmares, the insomnia and the feeling of utter isolation, not knowing who they can trust. They need to learn the skills to deal with the flashbacks and the nightmares, and to relaxs at the end of the day.
Trustworthiness is developed in the process of creating safety by maintaining clear, appropriate, consistent boundaries and objectives. Many people—veterans included—will not tell you everything until they believe you are trustworthy. Those things that haunt them at 2am are not things they are going to tell just anybody. Throughout the process that led to the PTSD–whether it be one single incident or years of traumas—the person regularly was stripped of their control, second guessed for every move and, often questioned on their decisions. Trauma informed treatment not only relies on consumers learning to trust their therapists, but also on them learning to trust themselves. Failure to keep promises reinforces the notion that the world is an unpredictable, terrifying place. Failure to help consumers see the logic in what they did, or are doing, reinforces the notion that their behavior is unpredictable and they are out of control. Remember to ask yourself what the benefit is to any behavor. Our brains are programmed to survive. How is the behavior helping the person survive. Substance abuse numbs pain and helps people survive until they develop alternate skills. Fear reactions/fleeing protect the person from imminent danger. Explosive anger can neutralize a perceived threat.
Choice means allowing consumers to prioritize what issues will be dealt with, when and to what extent. The caveat to this merges with collaboration. While it is certainly advised to maximize consumer input and control, there are some things which may need to be negotiated. When consumers are putting themselves at risk, even before treatment starts, the chances of them engaging in highly dangerous behaviors when they are in the midst of a crisis is much greater. For example, if Johnny is drinking a fifth of whisky each night and chasing it with hydrocodone, I would certainly not recommend delving into deep, emotionally charged issues in a traditional outpatient environment. It is likely when the pain increases, so will the desperation to stop the pain. Johnny first needs to get safe—mixing hydrocodone with whisky is just a slow way of committing suicide. If he can create a support plan that includes a drastic reduction in drinking (preferably 100%) and at least 3 people who will be there to support him, then I might consider working with him on the trauma issues in outpatient. My preference is for people with dual disorders (i.e. PTSD and substance abuse) who live alone or do not have a strong support system to enter into either intensive outpatient or a 3-5 day retreat in which they can have 24-hour access to a therapist and have their medication and substance intake monitored.
Finally, empowerment means providing consumers with the tools to help them create safety, trusting them to do the next right thing and encouraging them to make educated choices regarding their recovery and their life. Empowerment means helping them find positive ways to use the energy they are currently using to try and contain their anger and devastation. In PTSD, people often have a lot of “I should haves.” They cannot change the past, but with the knowledge of what they believe they should have done, what can they do now? That is to say, they cannot change the past, but what can they do to prevent it from happening in the future and/or make ammends if they believe they have done something wrong.
Trauma informed care identifies the trauma, and all of the associated mental, emotional, physical and social changes as the primary cause of people’s mental health and substance abuse issues. Likely things will never be like they were before the trauma, but they can get better. The terapists job is to help people define what “better” looks like, provide needed skills to help the person achieve their goals and empower them to start doing the hard work necessary to recover.