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Perceived Stigma of PTSD Deters Many from Seeking Help

Master Sgt. Lyle Babcock. Photograph by Sgt. 1st Class Mark Hanson/Kansas National Guard Visual Information.

Although post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is often thought of as a symptom of warfare, major catastrophes, and assault, a recent Johns Hopkins study concluded that nearly one-quarter of ICU survivors suffer from the disorder. For many of these individuals, simply admitting the need for help may be the most difficult thing they ever do. Master Sgt. Lyle Babcock spent nearly 15 months deployed in Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. In the time since his return, Babcock has grappled with a personal battle with PTSD.

An Army veteran of nearly 31 years, Babcock, a management analyst for the human resources office at the Kansas National Guard Joint Forces Headquarters (JFHQ) in Topeka, served from 2012-2013 as the noncommissioned officer (NCO) in charge of the 102nd Military History Detachment, documenting the role of the U.S. military in Afghanistan. His duties included collecting documents, taking photos and videos, and conducting interviews with soldiers to gather their perspective on the war.

Those interviews were often the first time soldiers had a chance to talk about their combat experiences out loud.

“I got the real story,” Babcock said. “It was neat. Through the process, they started opening up. You could see and feel their emotions and everything they witnessed and went through.”

Babcock voluntarily extended his deployment several months and looks back fondly on his experience, saying that he “would do it again in a heartbeat” and even that it was “fun.”

However, when he returned home, his wife, Traci, immediately noticed a difference in him.

“When he came off the plane, he was very stiff, still very much in that military mode,” she said. “He was kind of standoffish. He wasn’t sure how to act or feel.”

Babcock wanted to drive the family’s vehicle home from the airport, scaring everyone in the car.

“He drove like a crazy person,” Traci said. “He was tailgating people and driving really fast, because that’s how they have to drive over there to stay alive-point A to B as fast as you can.”

What really alarmed Traci, who’s studying for her master’s degree in addiction counseling at Washburn University, is that her husband couldn’t sleep in bed with her.

“I preferred sleeping on the couch; it felt more secure,” Lyle said. “Over there, you go to bed, you know where your gun’s at, and you know where things are at. You don’t have to think about it twice. You get back, all of a sudden things are different and you don’t feel as secure.”

At work, back in the garrison environment of JFHQ after a month of leave, his newly developed hypervigilance and paranoia didn’t mesh well with his co-workers. He cited a time where he “swung on” a co-worker, merely because she approached him unwittingly and startled him.

“I had a panic attack. Instant cold sweats, and I felt very insecure and unsecure,” he said. “I ended up leaving without telling anyone. That’s when I knew something was way off. I usually deal with stress well, but I was stressed. I was emotional. What the hell just happened and why? What’s going on?”

Chalisa Gadt-Johnson, PhD, a licensed psychologist at Colmery-O’Neil VA Medical Center, Topeka, describes the four primary clusters of PTSD symptoms.

“There are intrusive symptoms including nightmares, flashbacks, or invasive thoughts,” she said. “There’s hyperarousal-can’t concentrate, irritability, difficulty sleeping, and paranoia. Negative thinking and emotions, including fear, anxiety, guilt, and shame. And finally, avoidance. They avoid doing everyday things like going to Walmart to avoid feeling distress.”

Gadt-Johnson said that people who experience symptoms in all four categories meet the criteria for a PTSD diagnosis.

“I really didn’t want to admit that I had PTSD,” Babcock said. “That was a hard road for me. I felt, one, I’m decent size…I’m a senior NCO. I looked at it as a failure. It meant you’re weak, or at least that’s what I perceived it as.”

As a seasoned Army vet, Babcock said he was well-prepared for his time in theater and that his personal experiences there were milder in comparison to many of the soldiers he talked to.

“I went through some stuff, but not real bad,” he said. “Not like some of these guys and gals.”

But PTSD isn’t limited to only those who’ve experienced or seen the worst, and it’s not even limited to service members or people who have personally experienced traumatic events.

“PTSD is a non-discriminatory disorder,” Gadt-Johnson said. “It can affect anyone who experienced, witnessed, or knows someone they care about who experienced some sort of trauma event.”

Babcock’s biggest roadblock in admitting that he was experiencing PTSD symptoms and seeking support was his concern about how others, particularly those in the military leadership, might view him.

“How would other people perceive it?” he said. “How would my leadership perceive it? I was worried about the stigma of ‘somebody dealing with PTSD is like a powder keg ready to explode at any time.’ I think that stigma existed [in the Kansas Guard] because the leadership hadn’t made a point of addressing it. Once they started to acknowledge it, the stigma began to erode.”

According to Maj. Gen. Lee Tafanelli, the adjutant general of Kansas, it’s up to every member of the organization to crush that stigma.

“Many people think that they can deal with [PTSD] themselves, so that stigma may even be on them,” said Tafanelli. “They think there’s something wrong with them, and they really don’t want to let leaders know. In some cases, there might be leaders who tend to view individuals that are experiencing some of these difficulties as some kind of a weakness, and it’s really not.”

Tafanelli urged those in the Kansas National Guard who may be dealing with any of the symptoms of PTSD in silence to “give your chain of command a chance to help you. There’s no sense in suffering or dealing with this on your own.”

Gadt-Johnson, who is also the chief of the stress disorder treatment program at the Topeka VA center, agreed.

“As human beings, we aren’t designed to suffer in isolation,” she said. “From the time we’re born, we thrive on the dependency of others. This idea of ‘I’ve got to deal with it on my own’ is counterintuitive to the human species. We want people to know our stories, and we want to feel understood.”

Untreated, someone who has PTSD can eventually collapse and become dangerous to themselves, their family, and co-workers, but Gadt-Johnson said that a person who is living with PTSD doesn’t have to be a prisoner to their symptoms.

“If you manage your symptoms, you can go out and live a full, quality life,” she said. “PTSD is a part of you, but it doesn’t have to be a factor for you.”

Babcock embodies that notion.

“PTSD has been around a long time, and it’s real,” he said. “There are men and women dealing with it in our organization right now, and they are not getting the help they need. They’re dealing with it with drugs and alcohol, by being in a cocoon all the time, and by taking it out on their family. Or by burying it, but those holes can’t get deep enough at times, and sometimes stuff starts to come out.”

But Babcock offered hope.

“There is help,” he said.

This article was adapted from information provided by Johns Hopkins Medicine and an original story by Sgt. Zach Sheely.