What thought-provoking irony there is in the phrase “strong in all the broken places” penned by Ernest Hemmingway in A Farewell to Arms. We all have broken places in our lives, but many veteran families have special challenges to healing. A young father experiences a severe head injury, or looses his legs, and can no longer return to a construction job. The whole family must adjust to new roles of identity, bread-winning and care-taking.
Families of veterans and active duty military have challenges that most of us cannot comprehend, including welcoming a loved one who may experience posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms upon their return home from combat, or in the months and years following their reunion with family and friends.
Thankfully, many congregations are reaching out to those who have sacrificed so much for our freedom. The first step is educating the family, the faith community and our neighbors about mental illness.
Following combat services, some veterans and military members live with PTSD and experience nightmares, flashbacks, anxiety and dissociation (feeling removed from one’s emotions). For many people, these acute symptoms can be managed over time. Individuals may find that a strong support system or seeking treatment can help. For others, though, these symptoms can endure for months, or even years. If a person finds that these experiences disrupt his or her ability to go about their ordinary life, they should consult a mental health professional who can evaluate symptoms to see if they meet specific diagnostic criteria for PTSD.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) reports that over a lifetime, about 10 percent of women and five percent of men are diagnosed with PTSD, and many others will experience some adverse effects from trauma in their lives. Fourteen percent of military members returning from service in Iraq and Afghanistan met current PTSD criteria in a 2008 national survey conducted by the RAND Corporation.
In addition to learning about the psychological struggles of veteran and military families, faith communities can extend love and support in practical ways. Find out what each family needs and tailor your responses accordingly. Maybe it’s just a non-judgmental listening ear or transportation to a doctor’s appointment. Being sensitive to grief and loss may allow the person to voice questions about God and faith. Give them space and time to feel welcome.
Some congregations offer a service of healing and reconciliation, or provide a way for veterans and military members to connect. Trained pastoral counselors know how to watch for stress that is not well-managed, which may lead to substance abuse or physical abuse to others. In these cases, referrals can be made to other professionals.
Though we cannot solve all problems of veteran families, we can help them grow strong in all the broken places by creating a network of care and supportive services. The Veterans Administration (VA) in any state can be reached at 1 (800) 827-1000.
Free pamphlets about PTSD can be obtained from Mental Health Ministries and the National Institute on Mental Health. Visit NAMI's Web site to learn more about mental illness, view and order NAMI’s PTSD brochure. Visit the NAMI Veterans Resource Center for additional resources addressing the needs of veterans and active duty military members and families contending with mental health issues.
In helping others, we all learn to grow strong in all the broken places.
Carole Wills, NAMI FaithNet Advisory Board
November 2, 2009