Drug addiction compounds problem for those with PTSD
Former Army Reservist and Iraqi war veteran Joe Collins sits in his mother’s living room in Edmond and describes his daily struggle to forget his time spent in war.
“I’ll do anything not to think about it. I don’t even have a cable box in my room. It’s the psychological part of trying to live with what we’ve done, and living with what we’ve seen.”
In the eight years since his return from combat Collins has gone through a variety of physical ailments from a mixture of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and drug addiction, including losing his teeth. The 28-year-old veteran now wears dentures and speaks with a lisp. He’s also lost the ability to live and work on his own. This change, he says, is often the hardest adjustment.
“I felt compelled, pretty much my entire life growing up, to always take care of my stuff on my own. I worked 25 to 30 hours a week in high school and paid for everything. I paid the car payment, insurance, for gas. I felt like if I did it on my own it would mean that much more.”
Collins is among a group of veterans that is becoming more widely recognized, those who develop a drug addiction in part due to PTSD. A study by the Journal of the American Medical Association released in March found that veterans, largely from Iraq and Afghanistan, with PTSD were prescribed opium-based painkillers at a higher rate and dosage than those without mental health disorders, and they were often taking them with other pain killers or hypnotic drugs.
Last month the Department of Veterans Affairs announced the addition of 1900 mental health professionals to its staff. This was just days before the release of a glaring internal report on the VA’s manipulation of inpatient treatment statistics. According to VA policy, when veterans ask for mental health care they are supposed to receive a full evaluation within 14 days. The inspector general’s report concluded that while the VA was claiming to hit that mark 95% of the time, in reality over more than half of the veterans studied waited an average of 50 days.
Over the last few months the more than 3,000 soldiers in the Oklahoma National Guard’s 45th Infantry Brigade have been returning from Kuwait and Afghanistan. While the Federal Department of Veterans Affairs’ mental health staff increase may help accommodate the increasing number of returning veterans, some within the department are still worried.
“My bigger concern is not how we’re going to handle them but getting them here at all.”
Edwina Luker is a program manager at the VA and part of a task force looking at how to meet the needs of the returning 45th.
“Typically, this age group does not want to have anything wrong with them. And, they certainly don’t want to have mental health things wrong with them or traumatic brain injuries. And so, not to find out may mean you don’t have it, which is not, of course, the case.”
The Federal government says it recognizes the mounting problem that PTSD and drug addiction pose. Luker’s colleague at the Oklahoma City VA, Public Affairs Officer Stacy Rine, says the VA is evolving to take on PTSD.
“A lot of people have a different perception of the VA, and I always tell them when they come in it’s not your father’s VA We are not the same VA we were ten years ago, even five years ago. We see a lot of younger veterans who want to communicate electronically. So we do text messaging and social media. Another example is appointments. A lot of these vets have day jobs. So, we have appointments early in the morning, as well as late at night to accommodate their needs.”
However, the problem goes deeper than denial or time restraints on the part of the veterans. Many times the stigma that comes with PTSD keeps them from seeking treatment. Many soldiers fear they may be jeopardizing a career with the military.
“I tried to keep everything completely quiet and away from the military, at first. I had what was called dual status with my federal employment job. So, if I lost my military position I could no longer work.”
Joe Collins paid out-of-pocket for his care, eventually exhausting all the money he had saved from his time in the Army. Primary car doctors prescribed him higher and higher doses of prescription drugs, namely Adderall, which left him with a severe drug addiction.
State Senator Steve Russell served 21 years in the infantry in the US Army. During that time he deployed operationally to Kosovo, Kuwait, Afghanistan, and Iraq. He sympathizes with veterans like Joe.
“The minute a soldier has to make the choice of getting treatment for post traumatic stress, he is immediately stigmatized in society. He probably can’t hold a trusted government job. He could never enter the FBI, or he’d have difficulty doing any number of other things. Yet, as a member of the military, we can send him on tour, after tour, after tour. Do you see how it works against the veteran to seek treatment on things that he might need? But the minute you do, you’ve got the mark of Cain on your forehead. So, most veterans, I would say, just choose not to do it.”
After serving in a war zone it isn’t uncommon for soldiers to decline mental health care through the VA in order to process faster and get home as soon as possible.
“When we got back we’d fill out these papers, and if you put that you saw something bad, or you were exposed to this, they’re going to keep you, and you’ll just be stuck there that much longer. So all you’re thinking is ‘How do I get home?’”
Collins says while the Army spent three months preparing him for deployment to Iraq, they only spent one week preparing him for civilian life.
Another option for soldiers who fear being stigmatized is public treatment through the state. But, Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services Commissioner Terri White says that system is overwhelmed. Speaking at an Oklahoma City public health forum in February White contended that until addiction and mental illness are addressed as the serious medical conditions they are, Oklahomans wont spend the time and resources necessary to treat them adequately.
“As long as people believe somehow that this is a character issue or a moral issue, or that they are flawed, they’re never going to be able to stand up and ask for the help that they need. We have to be talking about it. That in of itself is free, and it will make a huge difference.”
According to a federal survey, Oklahoma currently leads the nation in prescription drug abuse. Adding to the issue’s urgency and much to the dismay of White’s department, many of those who are turned away for treatment turn to suicide.
“We’ve gone from 13th in the nation to 8th for suicide rates. And, by the way, one out of every four of those is a veteran.”
“I think a lot of those veteran’s statistics are unfair.”
“They’re cherry-picked. Enough of the stigma. I have changed from the wars that I have fought, but I am still a competent human being. Don’t take that away from us simply by the right that we went out and did the impossible, and we went and did the hardest things that our nation asked us to do,” said State Senator Steve Russell.
Statistically, most of those suffering from PTSD do not act out in ways that violate the law, but Russell cites public perception to the contrary as a major roadblock in veteran care.
“If we think that we’re unrecoverable, then we are forever in a victim category in society. I think that is a contributing factor to people self-medicating. They believe that they can’t make it, or that they can’t be made whole.”
Back in Edmond, Joe Collins says that’s just what he plans to do, become whole again.
“I want more than anything to be independent again. I’m trying to ween off the meds, but there are still things that I just can’t do. There are continual battles in my life, but I do see myself getting a job and having my own place.”
Joe now works with his mother’s veteran’s care advocacy organization, Veterans Families United, attending Yellow Ribbon events put together by the National Guard to share his experience with other veterans. Even though he describes his years of addiction as a living hell he says his turmoil put him in a unique position to help his fellow veterans, saying that even if he only helps one person he’s done something to make a difference.