With all the recent attention given to post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in the military, there is a perception that the illness is a recent phenomenon.
Not so. PTSD is just “shell shock”, “battle fatigue” or one of many names given to the condition in the past. Mental war-related trauma is as old as war itself. The only difference is now it is being recognized for the disability it is.
Shelley Hale of the Royal Ottawa Operational Stress Injury (OSI) Clinic knows all about the historical prevalence of PTSD when it comes to Canadian soldiers. Her clinic is contracted by Veterans Affairs Canada to treat veterans who suffer from mental injuries, including PTSD and a host of other conditions caused by war trauma.
Hale’s clinic deals with many veterans who served in Afghanistan. But it also has clients from nearly every military operation Canada has been involved in over the past century. The clinic’s oldest client, for example, is 89, a veteran of World War II who has been living with PTSD for nearly all of his life.
“There is a whole unknown side of this,” Hale says.
She noted that the clinic’s youngest client is a 22-year-old Afghanistan veteran, so it is crucial to be able to adapt programs and services to meet diverse needs. The flexibility required to treat PTSD and other mental injuries is one of the main reasons Hale believes her clinic, and the eight other Operational Stress Injury (OSI) clinics across the country, are having such success.
“All clients are different,” she says. “These guys come with a lot of stuff. They’ve often got families at home. Some of them still work. And often they’ve had a lot of physical wear and tear from their time in the military.”
OSI clinics feature a range of service providers, from psychiatrists to therapists, nurses and social workers. Hale calls it a holistic approach. For example, the clinic has had yoga classes to help with the mind-body connection of the clients.
In essence, the OSI clinics are trying to help veterans come to terms with the trauma that caused the PTSD or other problems they face.
Treatment may involve therapy sessions where veterans can talk about the incidents that are affecting them. It may involve helping the client understand his or her own emotions, and what triggers have set off those emotions. And it may involve nurses helping a veteran quit smoking or lose weight, or medication to help with insomnia or depression.
Clients also set their own pace of treatment. Some come as often as twice per week, others as seldom as once per month. Some clients come for a handful of sessions and then feel confident they can deal with regular life. Others go through a range of treatments over years.
The goal in each case is to help veterans come to terms with the trauma that caused their brains to remain in shock mode.
Hale tells the story of a veteran who returned from Afghanistan but could not get over the threat of improvised explosive devices (IED). After living for so long in a war zone where IEDs may be hidden anywhere, the veteran had trouble just going to the mall or to a park after returning to Canada.
Seeing that veteran later able to enjoy a picnic in a park with family makes her work so fulfilling, Hale says.
“For all of us who work here there are a lot of personal connections,” Hale says. “We all have family members or people we know who served or are serving. It’s all about the stories, and every client’s story is different.”