Paula Schnurr: ‘15% of Iraq soldiers may have PTSD’

Schnurr says that war veterans have always suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but the extent of that suffering wasn’t measured before the diagnosis was formalized in 1980. She talks about how to help veterans process their experiences and ease their symptoms.

Paula Schnurr is a leading expert on post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD – at the Department of Veterans Affairs. She told EarthSky that 15% of those serving in Iraq might suffer from this disorder.

Paula Schnurr: We estimate that about fifteen percent of the men and women who are serving in Iraq have PTSD. That’s a large number when you think about the total number who have served there.

Extreme stress – torture, rape, battle conditions and so on – create PTSD. Schnurr described PTSD sufferers as having stress responses in overdrive. They have trouble concentrating. They’re jumpy and keyed-up.

Paula Schnurr: They have nightmares or they have these intrusive memories and recollections coming at them when they least expect it.

Schnurr explained that post-traumatic stress disorder has come into our consciousness in the U.S. more acutely in recent years – after the collective national trauma of 9/11. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that followed have boosted the awareness.

Paula Schnurr: It reminds us what a significant impact going to war can have on mental health.

Schnurr added that veterans of wars have always suffered from PTSD – but the extent of that suffering wasn’t measured before the diagnosis was formalized in 1980. She emphasized that for those who have the disorder, effective treatment for easing PTSD is available in the form of psychotherapy and medications.

Paula Schnurr: One thing that the military has done is develop combat stress control teams and other support teams to simply talk about and acknowledge what happens when people are exposed to something life threatening. So that sends an important message that it’s OK to have these symptoms, that it’s normal to have these symptoms, they’re part of the reaction. What’s happening in cases of PTSD is that people never fully process the information and then they can’t put it aside, so they’re stuck in this cycle.