Entries in PTSD (31)


Purple Hearts for Troops with PTSD?

iStockphoto/Thinkstock(SEATTLE) -- When Ron Morton returned from Vietnam in 1976, he abused drugs, attempted suicide and failed as a husband, unaware he was suffering a classic case of post-traumatic stress disorder from the near-fatal accidents he witnessed and experienced on the flight deck of the USS Ticonderoga. Today, the former Navy captain advocates making military members with post-traumatic stress and other invisible war wounds eligible for the Purple Heart.

"These are wounded people who deserve to be acknowledged for their efforts via a Purple Heart," Morton, 60, of Knoxville, Tenn., said Thursday from the national convention of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) in Seattle. "We want parity for mental illness, for combat-induced mental wounds. We want to be treated the same way as someone who has been shot in the arm or in the leg."

In a report, "Parity for Patriots," issued earlier Thursday, NAMI called mental health disorders like PTSD "signature injuries" of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, warning that the United States faces a deluge of new cases from scheduled troop draw-downs. The nation's largest grassroots mental health organization recommended that military commanders at all levels be accountable for suicide prevention and eliminating the stigma keeps some active duty troops and veterans from seeking care.

Bob Corolla, a NAMI spokesman, said the organization had delivered a copy of the report to U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., chairwoman of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee and author of the proposed Mental Health Access Act of 2012, which would improve care and access to care for service members and veterans.

Morton, the director of recovery and resiliency for Tennessee's Medicaid program, promotes programs that help people "recover from mental illness so they can have productive lives." He's all too aware that within military ranks, men and women remain reluctant to seek treatment because of a deeply ingrained culture of toughing it out.

"We don't think we deserve treatment for these things. We don't think we deserve acknowledgement of these things," he said.

Military officials have disputed the notion that troops suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder should be eligible for the Purple Heart.

"PTSD is an anxiety disorder caused by witnessing or experiencing a traumatic event; it is not a wound intentionally caused by the enemy from an 'outside force or agent,' but is a secondary effect caused by witnessing or experiencing a traumatic event," Defense Department spokeswoman Eileen Lainez told Stars and Stripes in 2009.

Many military personnel also fear that acknowledging a problem could damage their professional reputations, he said.

He recalled a conversation a couple of years ago with a helicopter pilot who flew combat missions in Iraq and said, "I know I have symptoms of PTSD. I won't come forward. I won't seek treatment because they'll ground me."

Morton said, "Our desire now is to reduce the stigma around mental illness," and to acknowledge military heroes whose sacrifices are psychological as well as physical.

One way that some psychiatrists have proposed reducing the stigma of a PTSD diagnosis is by dropping the use of the term "disorder" and calling it post-traumatic stress, or a post-traumatic stress injury, said Dr. Amir Afkhami, assistant professor of psychiatry and global health at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. "The disorder is associated with a kind of weakness, which goes against the culture of strength and, 'What does not kill you makes you stronger' that pervades the military.

"If I was a policy maker, one way I would approach this issue, rather than focus on the redefinition of the diagnosis, is focusing on education, both in terms of educating troops to what PTSD is; what are the biological causes of PTSD and educating the leadership of the military to recognize the long-term importance of treatment of post-traumatic stress."

He also said the U.S. military needs to come up with "creative ways to encourage folks to stay in treatment" because PTSD, which can produce a range of symptoms of varying degrees, is a chronic condition. He also noted that because it can go into remission, those who get treatment "shouldn't see the diagnosis of PTSD as a scarlet letter" that closes doors to them if they want to stay in the military.

Dr. Afkhami welcomed the idea of honoring invisibly wounded war heroes with the Purple Heart, saying that "any reframing of our view of post-traumatic stress, including recognizing it as a war wound worthy of a Purple Heart, certainly can help the process, but it's not the solution. ...When we do give a Purple Heart for PTSD, we should have another medal for people who go through treatment, because they rendered service not only to the Army, but also to society at large."

In its 17-page report, NAMI said one in five active duty military personnel have had symptoms of PTSD, depression or other mental health conditions. An active-duty soldier dies from suicide every 36 hours and a veteran dies by his or her own hand every 80 minutes.

Suicides are on the rise within the National Guard and Reserves, even among those who haven't been called up, the NAMI report said.

Families on the home front suffer depression and post-traumatic stress at about the same rates as service members, according to estimates cited by NAMI. More than one-third of military husbands and wives have one or more mental health problems, while one-third of children suffer from depression, anxiety or acute stress reaction.

NAMI encourages current and former military members or families in distress to call The National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255, which can transfer them to military and veteran crisis lines.

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio


Heart Attacks and PTSD: A Vicious Cycle

iStockphoto/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) -- PTSD is a type of anxiety that occurs after a severely frightening experience. Sufferers experience nightmares, high blood pressure and an increased heart rate. Often, they live in fear of things that would remind them of the initial traumatic event.

PTSD is usually associated with war, assault, abuse and violence -- but new research suggests that heart patients also battle this disorder.

Donald Edmondson, a professor of behavioral medicine specializing in cardiovascular health at Columbia University Medical Center in New York, led a study examining the relationship between heart attack and PTSD. This review of 24 studies involved more than 2,000 patients, and revealed that one in eight heart patients develop significant symptoms of PTSD.

Considering the fact that 1.4 million Americans are hospitalized for cardiac events each year, the findings suggest a substantial portion of the population may be living with psychological trauma and not realize why.

"I became interested in the relationship between PTSD and heart attacks after watching my patients," Edmondson said. "Once the physical threat is over, the family is ready to move on. But for the patients themselves, it's not over with. It's with them every day. "

The new analysis also suggests that heart patients who suffer PTSD face twice the risk of having another cardiac event -- or even dying within one to three years -- compared to patients without psychological symptoms.

Doctors hope that knowing about the specific relationship between heart attack and PTSD will continue to improve treatment for better mental and physical health.

"We can't intervene on the battlefield to prevent soldiers from getting PTSD," Edmonson said. "But there may be things we can do to help protect our patients."

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio


Wounded Warriors Helping Dogs Help Vets

Wounded warriors train service dogs to help other injured servicemen and women. (ABC News)(WASHINGTON) -- A group of disabled Iraq and Afghanistan military veterans has taken on an important mission -- training service dogs to aid other wounded vets on their road to recovery and beyond as part of a program just begun by the Pentagon.

Dogs like four-month-old puppy Cadence are part of a three-year training course that will eventually match them up to help wounded troops coming home who've suffered debilitating injuries such as loss of limbs.

Training man's best friends to assist those with physical disabilities has been done in the past -- but what's different about this program is that injured military vets do the training. And that training has had a positive impact on the trainers themselves -- giving them their own kind of canine therapy, as well as giving the dogs more specified training.

Sgt. Brian Bradley, who is training six dogs, lost his right arm in Afghanistan in 2010. He credits the program with helping him readjust to everyday life. And in return, he uses his prosthetic limb to better train the dogs to better understand the disabled soliders they'll be assigned once their training is finished.

"When I first got to the program last year, some of the puppies -- they were like, 'What is that?' They see the hook moving around and stuff," Bradley said. "I got other prosthetics, but they see the hook and we introduce that to them because they know they are going to be seeing it later. Also, we introduced the wheelchairs to them too and the power chairs."

Bradley believes that with disabled vets doing the training, the dogs will better serve wounded soldiers when they are done.

"When a service member gets a service dog from another company, most of those people are able bodied, have no issues, so they aren't really working around anybody who is disabled," Bradley said. "So we train them completely how every disabled service member would be."

The dogs in the program are trained to help out with everyday tasks like picking up wallets, money and credit cards to turning on lights and pushing automatic door buttons.

"I can open the door for myself -- but if I have a lot of stuff, he can push the buttons for me," Bradley said. "He can flip lights as well. I'll say 'light' and he'll jump up on the wall and he'll flip it. Sometimes he uses his paw, sometimes he uses his nose."

But they are also trained to help heal another kind of injury that plagues so many soldiers when they return home from war -- post-traumatic stress disorder.

"Mine kicks in every time I put on a new prosthetic that looks identical to my other arm," Bradley said. "It's like an instant memory of me actually losing my arm that day. So PTSD is there."

Specialist Cory Doane, who lost a leg in Afghanistan in 2011 when his vehicle was hit by an IED, says the program helps him even more than it helps the dogs he's training.

"It helped me a lot more than it's helped the dog for sure," Doane said. "It's nice just to get out and about again. Because, you know, after I was wounded I was kind of stationary for a bit. So it's nice to get out and actually do something productive, instead of just healing. It's nice to contribute back."

Those contributions -- from the trainers and the dogs -- are being recognized by the military community.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta praised the program and those who make it happen.

"To be able to have someone who can be close to you and be a part of you as you go through some very tough times, as you rehabilitate, as you come back and try to come back into society and have the company of a dog -- that is really a true friend because they don't question what you are doing, they're just your friend through thick and thin," Panetta told ABC News' Jake Tapper. "Having that kind of relationship I think is just great for the veterans who serve this country."

Panetta has his own canine friend, a golden retriever named Bravo, who has shown him the kind of difference a furry friend can make.

"We could not do our job of protecting this country without people like you who are willing to put their lives on the line," Panetta said to the wounded warrior trainers. "And I really appreciate your service and your sacrifice. I appreciate the effort to, you know, be able to have a dog help someone be able to lead a fuller life. In many ways that's what Bravo does for me in some very tough jobs that I've been in -- having the company of Bravo around and having him provide emotional support.

"Thanks for everything you're doing to help our veterans. We owe them an awful lot," he said. "I guess one of the ways we can repay it is to have them have the company of a dog."

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio


PTSD, Depression Passed Through Generations, Study Finds

Jupiterimages/Thinkstock(LOS ANGELES) -- Researchers at UCLA have identified mutations within three genes, which according to them may make some people more likely to develop symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression.

The researchers analyzed 200 adults from 12 multigenerational families who were exposed to the 1988 earthquake in Spitak, Armenia, most of whom saw dead bodies lying in the streets and people who were severely injured.

The participants underwent psychological screening and a genetic test 14 years after experiencing the earthquake.  The researchers found that people with mutations in any of three genes responsible for secreting the happiness hormone serotonin had PTSD and depression symptoms.

Previous studies have suggested that PTSD is heritable among siblings who experience traumatic situations such as war.  But this study suggests that the disorder is also heritable through multiple generations, according to Julia Bailey, assistant professor in the department of epidemiology at UCLA, and co-author of the study.

“We found that both PTSD and depression are heritable and that they share genes,” said Bailey, who added that the findings are consistent with previous research suggesting a genetic connection between PTSD and depression.

Unlike previous studies, the participants in this study were not previously diagnosed with PTSD or depression, nor were they seeking any sort of treatment for their symptoms.

However, all of the participants were of the same ethnic background, so the findings may not apply to all people, the researchers wrote in their study published Tuesday in the Journal of Affective Disorders.

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio


911 Dispatchers at Risk for PTSD, Research Says

iStockphoto/Thinkstock(DEKALB, Ill.) -- The emergency dispatchers who remain calm and unemotional while handling 911 calls may not witness the carnage their front-line police and firefighting colleagues encounter, but they can be just as vulnerable to post-traumatic stress disorder from all they hear and imagine, researchers report.

The men and women who field 911 emergencies hear some of the most soul-searing sounds imaginable: the anguished wailing of gunshot victims, the final words of someone they can't deter from suicide or the last thoughts of workers trapped in the Twin Towers on Sept. 11, 2001.  But the stresses of their experiences sometimes haven't been considered traumatic because the dispatchers haven't left their computer consoles.

"This is a population of people who are routinely exposed to events that should be considered traumatic," said Michelle Lilly, a psychology professor at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, Ill., who co-authored a study assessing the psychological impact of the crises dispatchers experience from afar.  "People think of the job as stressful, but not really traumatic."

Lilly, head of NIU's Trauma, Mental Health and Recovery Lab, and research associate Heather Pierce, a former 911 dispatcher married to a police officer, analyzed surveys completed by 171 emergency dispatchers from 24 states.  The survey takers were asked to describe the worst calls they had handled.  The group comprised predominantly of white women just under the age of 39 with nearly 12 years on the job, according to the study published Thursday in the Journal of Traumatic Stress.

Most said their worst experiences involved imperiled children or sending firefighters, police officers or emergency medical technicians who were friends and loved ones into harm's way.

"I was blown away by how upsetting some of (the incidents) would be for most people," Lilly said Wednesday as she described accounts of dispatchers talking parents "through CPR after they have discovered their child has drowned in the pool."

She was particularly shaken by a call involving two young siblings, one of whom had a mental health problem.  The healthy child called 911 and locked himself in a room for protection, but the dispatcher "could hear the sibling trying to take the hinges off the door and intending to attack."

All the dispatcher could say was, "Help is on the way.  We'll get there as fast as we can," Lilly said.

Such situations can engender feelings of fear, helplessness and horror which, when unaddressed, can set the stage for PTSD.  Lilly and Pierce found that 3.5 percent of the survey respondents reported symptoms "severe enough they probably would qualify for a diagnosis of PTSD," Lilly said.

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio


Denver Woman Accused of Faking PTSD to Dodge Jury Duty

KMGB/ABC News(DENVER) -- A Denver woman is facing felony charges for allegedly faking post-traumatic stress disorder to dodge jury duty.

Susan Cole, 57, arrived for jury selection in June looking purposefully disheveled, wearing curlers in her hair and mismatched shoes, according to an affidavit obtained by the Denver Post. Cole reportedly told Denver District Court Judge Anne Mansfield she “broke out of domestic violence in the military” and had “a lot of repercussions,” including PTSD.

“Her makeup looked like something you would wear during a theater performance,” court reporter Kelli Wessels told investigators, according to the Post. “When the judge asked the entire panel if anyone had a mental illness, [Cole] stated she had difficulties getting ready in the morning, which was apparent to me by the way she was dressed."

Cole was excused from her civic duties. But her plot was foiled four months later when Judge Mansfield heard a woman bragging about how she faked mental illness to evade jury duty on a local radio show. The woman, who called herself “Char from Denver,” was Cole, an author who uses “Char” as a pen name, the Denver Post reported. The Denver District Attorney’s Office Thursday charged Cole with perjury and attempting to influence a public servant.

“As a mental health professional, I find this disturbing and upsetting,” said Dr. Joseph Calabrese, a psychiatrist at University Hospitals Case Medical Center in Cleveland. “PTSD is a very serious, life-threatening illness. And things like this tend to trivialize it.”

PTSD is an anxiety disorder brought on by a traumatic event, such as domestic abuse. The debilitating symptoms, which include emotional numbing, anger and terrifying flashbacks, increase the risk of suicide.

“I find these sorts of things distracting and inappropriate,” Calabrese said of Cole’s “manipulative” behavior. “That sort of criminal behavior has nothing to do with mental illness.”

Cole’s book, Seven Initiations with El-Way’s Secrets, claims to help readers “deal with difficult relationships and situations” through biblical passages. Cole offered investigators a copy of the book as evidence of her struggle with domestic abuse and mental illness, but was unable to prove she was diagnosed with PTSD, the Denver Post reported.

“I think this is problematic on a number of levels,” said Dr. Adam Brown, clinical assistant professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at NYU Langone Medical Center. “Mental illness certainly could interfere with someone’s ability to serve on a jury, but it isn’t something as stereotypical as dressing and acting the way she did. Many people have mental illness and you’d never know. They don’t stand out. In that way, I think it contributes to the negative stereotype.”

Brown said PTSD is a relatively new mental health diagnoses, one that certain circles have been slow to accept.

“I think many military veterans are still struggling with taking PTSD seriously, and the stigma of admitting you have it,” he said. “I think anything that contributes to PTSD being seen in a negative light contributes to that.”

The charges against Cole come amid accusations that an Army hospital in Tacoma, Wash., reversed PTSD diagnoses in soldiers to cut costs. Some of the soldiers were reportedly accused of faking symptoms to collect medical retirement benefits.

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio


Army Hospital Accused of Reversing PTSD Diagnoses to Cut Costs

Frank Rossoto Stocktrek/Getty Images(TACOMA, Wash.) -- An army hospital in Tacoma, Wash. is under fire for reneging on mental health care for troops diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Since 2007, more than 300 soldiers under consideration for medical retirement because of PTSD had their diagnoses reversed by a screening team at Madigan Army Medical Center -- a move criticized for putting costs before care.

"Over 40 percent of those service members who walked in the door with a PTSD diagnosis had their diagnosis changed to something else or overturned entirely," Sen. Patty Murray said at a Defense Appropriations Subcommittee hearing Wednesday. "In light of all the tragedies we have seen that stem from the untreated, invisible wounds of war, I'm sure that you would agree that this is very concerning."

PTSD is an anxiety disorder brought on by a traumatic event. The symptoms -- from anger and hypervigilance to numbness and avoidance, not to mention recurrent nightmares and terrifying flashbacks -- can wreak havoc on a person's personal and professional life.

A 2010 study by Walter Reed Army Institute of Research found up to 30 percent of Iraq war veterans have symptoms of PTSD. The diagnosis can cost taxpayers as much as $1.5 million per soldier, according to an Army Medical Command memo obtained by the Seattle Times.

"The challenges of PTSD and mental health care are real. And no one -- no one -- should be denying any service member purely because of a question of cost," said Murray. "That is something the tax payers of this country bear the burden of providing. We will provide it."

Madigan is currently under investigation by the U.S. Army Medical Command for the reversed diagnoses. But Murray argued the investigation should be military-wide.

"I want to make sure that we are really looking not just at Madigan… but system-wide," she said, adding that costs should not stand in the way of soldiers getting "the care that they have earned and they deserve and that this country expects them to have."

Army Secretary John McHugh said the problem appears to be isolated to Madigan.

"To this point, we don't see any evidence of this being systemic," he responded, during Wednesday's hearing, adding that all military providers have been reminded to leave fiscal considerations out of the diagnostic process.

The controversy highlights the high costs of treating PTSD -- a once unrecognized consequence of combat. It also underscores the unspoken costs of leaving PTSD undiagnosed and untreated.

"People with PTSD are twice as likely to lose their job or be unemployed," said Dr. Joseph Calabrese, a psychiatrist at University Hospitals Case Medical Center in Cleveland. "They're also twice as likely to separate from their spouse or get divorced. And of those who aren't married are much less likely to get married. It's hard to maintain a stable relationship when you're having all these symptoms. Your social life becomes chaotic as well."

Untreated PTSD also raises the risk of suicide. In 2007 and 2008, 255 active duty soldiers committed suicide. That number is up 80 percent from 2004, according to a March 2012 study.

Without a diagnosis, soldiers go without the proper care -- a combination of psychotherapy and medication -- and the financial benefits they need to be able to cope. Some soldiers diagnosed with PTSD were receiving treatment for months and even years prior to having their diagnoses reversed.

"They received treatment for those conditions. But then when they entered the [Military Disability] process, they had those diagnoses changed," said Murray.

Some soldiers were even accused of faking PTSD symptoms to qualify for medical retirement, the Seattle Times reported. But Calabrese said PTSD is "not difficult" to accurately diagnose and the symptoms are hard to fake.

Both Calabrese and Murray worried that the Madigan controversy might dissuade soldiers from seeking treatment for PTSD.

"Not only is it damaging for these soldiers, but it also furthers the stigma for others that are deciding whether to seek help for behavioral health problems," said Murray.

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio


Study: Gender Nonconforming Children Face Increased Risk of Abuse

Comstock/Thinkstock(BOSTON) -- One in 10 children is at increased risk of abuse as well as post-traumatic stress disorder in adulthood because they are gender nonconforming, according to a new study.

Much of that abuse -- emotional, physical and even sexual -- is at the hands of their parents or other adults in the home, according to a study published today online, which will appear in the March issue of the journal Pediatrics.

Researchers at Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) and the Division of Adolescent and Young Adult Medicine at Children's Hospital in Boston analyzed questionnaires from nearly 9,000 young adults with an average age of 23.

The children had enrolled in the longitudinal Growing Up Today study in 1996 and were asked a decade later in 2007 to recall their childhood experiences, including favorite games and toys, roles they took in play, media characters they admired and feelings of femininity and masculinity.

As young adults, they were also asked about physical, sexual or emotional abuse they experienced and were screened for post-traumatic stress disorder.

Rates of PTSD were almost twice as high among young adults who were gender nonconforming in childhood than among those who were not, according to researchers.

"The message of this study is discrimination towards these kids is pretty severe and it takes place in the home as well as outside the home," said lead author Andrea Roberts, a research associate in the Department of Society, Human Development and Health at Harvard.

"And it can have lasting health effects on kids -- PTSD is a very serious illness -- It's bad news."

PTSD has also been linked to risky behavior such as engaging in unprotected sex and medical symptoms such as cardiovascular problems and chronic pain.

"There are stereotypes and society is pretty intolerant of gender nonconformity," Roberts said.

An estimated 1 in 10 children younger than 11 display some degree of gender nonconformity in their behavior dress and play, according to this study.

Transgenderism, where a child's biological gender and identity do not match up, occurs in an estimated 1 in 1,000 children.

This was the first study to use a population-based sample to look at gender nonconformity as a risk factor for abuse. Most other studies of this kind have been of LGBT youth.

The study sample was not selected on the basis of sexual orientation and comprised primarily white students.

Most of the focus today is about bullying in school, but this study looked at the home environment, asking subjects openly about psychological and physical abuse by parents and other adults in the home.

Researchers asked subjects questions such as, "Did your parents hate you?" or "Did they kick you?" or "Were you being yelled at or screamed at or berated?"

Roberts suggested that parents who are uncomfortable with a child's gender expression might try to change the behavior.

Although gender identity and sexual orientation are different, families often assume that their child will be gay and they can change them. "They become more hard in their parenting," Roberts said.

The Family Research Project at San Francisco State University confirms in its research that parental behaviors have an effect on their children's health and mental outcomes. Positive family responses to gender nonconforming children were "protective factors" for those risks.

Harvard researchers rated subjects to determine the degree of gender nonconformity in childhood. Men in the 10th percentile reported a higher incidence of sexual and physical abuse before age 11 and psychological abuse from 11 to 17, compared with those below the median percentile.

Women in the top 10th percentile reported a higher prevalence of all forms of abuse as children.

Boys, as a group, tend to be more gender-conforming in general. "There's a narrow band," Roberts said. "Girls ranged a bit more."

Dr. Madeline Deutsch, director of the transgender health program at the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center, said that "recall" studies are often flawed.

But Deutsch said she is he is "not surprised at all" by its findings based on her work with transgender youth, and said more research is critical.

"It really bothers people on a basic level when behavior is discordant with gender," Deutsch said. "When you have a child, the first thing people ask is not whether the baby has brown hair or how much the baby weighs, or whether there are birth marks. But is it a boy or is it a girl?"

She said that acceptance at home is "central" to a child's development. And those who do not conform to their gender can struggle with parental issues well into their 20s.

The Harvard study found that 85 percent of the participants who were gender nonconforming in childhood said they were heterosexual in adulthood.

"Our findings suggest that most of the intolerance toward gender nonconformity in children is targeted toward heterosexuals," Roberts said.

"We did find a strong relationship between nonconformity and sexual orientation," she said. "They were more likely to be LGBT."

Other studies have shown that children who are perceived as gay and bullied are at greater risk for physical violence and for depression and suicide.

Biased remarks and homophobia adversely affect students' educational outcomes and personal development at every grade level, according to a study by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Educational Network (GLSEN) in its most recent report, "Playgrounds and Prejudice."

GLSEN research reveals that gender nonconforming students are less likely than other students to feel safe at school. They also are more likely than others to be called names, made fun of or bullied.

The Harvard study also emphasizes the need for elementary schools to do more to address issues of homophobia, gender expression and family diversity.

More research is needed to understand why gender nonconforming kids experience greater risk of abuse, and to develop interventions to prevent abuse, the researchers said.

They recommend that pediatricians and school health providers consider abuse screening for this vulnerable population.

Deutsch agrees that there should be secondary protections for gender nonconforming people in the schools and in the workplace, and institutions "at the top" should set the tone for nondiscriminatory policies.

But, she said, "They have finally started looking at places outside school, in the home."

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio


American Hikers Face Enormous Psychological Challenges

AFP/Getty Images(NEW YORK) -- After 26 months of imprisonment in a notorious Iranian prison, American hikers Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal face a psychologically daunting readjustment to freedom.

"What these two guys experienced over the past two years is an ongoing exposure to captivity, which is one of the most harmful and traumatic experiences that a human being can endure," said Yuval Neria, director of the Trauma and PTSD Program at the New York State Psychiatric Institute.

Being in prison, he said, often involves traumatic experiences, including isolation, a lack of privacy, a lack of social support and, in some cases, torture.

Sarah Shourd, Bauer's fiancee who was also held in the same prison after all three were arrested by Iranian authorities, told ABC News in July that Bauer and Fattal were blindfolded when outside their cells, isolated and rarely allowed phone calls.  Shourd was released from prison on a $500,000 bond for medical reasons last September.

She also revealed she suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and has had to deal with the anxiety of moving from an environment where she was isolated in solitary confinement to sudden celebrity.

The experience was so traumatizing, she told the Huffington Post in May, she couldn't return to Iran to face criminal sanctions alongside Bauer and Fattal.

"There's a part of me that would like to be with them and be able to stand by them and defend our innocence in court, but I'm afraid that it would be too traumatic for me after what I've already been through," she said.

PTSD, anxiety, depression, severe psychotic breaks and reliving abuse are among the conditions experts worry the hikers may face in the coming weeks and months.

"Initially, there is great excitement, happiness and relief for them and their families, but studies have shown in numerous populations that the emotional impact can be quite severe," Neria said.

While their families and other loved ones can provide the support and comfort the men need, the attention could potentially become overwhelming.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio


ABC's Nick Watt Takes Part in Experiment to Alter Memory and Expunge Fear

ABC News Reporter's Notebook By Nick Watt

(AMSTERDAM) -- "Does that hurt yet?" the lab assistant asked after administering an electric shock.

"Yes," I replied. "But I think I can take a little more." It was sore. But I was trying to be tough and cool.

She upped the voltage and hit the switch again. I convulsed, jumped from my chair and heard laughter from the other side of the wall. The lab assistant was laughing because my colleagues -- producer Paolo and cameraman Andy -- were laughing.

I was wired up for a bizarre experiment in an Amsterdam basement. Not an S&M basement, you understand, but the basement of the University of Amsterdam's psychology department.

The lab assistant was calibrating just how much voltage I needed for the shock to be unpleasant without making me really, really sore. Why? I was playing guinea pig in an experiment.

These Dutch psychologists believe they have found a chemical way to alter our memories -- specifically, to expunge fear from bad memories.

This treatment might one day help people exposed to traumatic events -- explosions, car wrecks, plane crashes -- who have developed develop post traumatic stress disorder, deep and often irrational fears associated with their painful memories.

After my time reporting in Iraq, I was one of those people and was treated with a kind of cognitive behavioral therapy. What's different here is these Dutch researchers suggest that chemicals, not therapy, could be used to remove fear from our memories.

"Part of the reason you get those associations is that your body produces a large amount of adrenaline when you go through an unpleasant experience," Professor Neil Greenberg of the Kings College in London told me. "So any memory of that traumatic experience would again cause you to pour out large amounts of adrenaline."

But for this particular experiment to work, researchers first needed to create fear in me. Hence, the electric shocks. I was wired up, headphones on and positioned in front of a computer screen. Images flashed before my eyes. And every time an image of a particular spider popped up on the screen, I received an electric shock and heard a harsh, high-pitched screech through my headphones. After a few rounds of this, I had effectively developed a fear for that image of the spider.

Now, in the actual experiment, what happens is that the next day the guinea pigs return and go through the process again -- the shocks, the noise, the images. ... The memory and the fear of the spider are essentially reopened.

A few of the guinea pigs are given a drug, an adrenaline suppressant called propranolol. For those guinea pigs, the memory and fear of the spider is reawakened by the photo, the shock and the noise. But because they are under the influence of proporanolol, the memory is re-imprinted in their brain without the fear response, without the adrenalin rush that comes with fear. So basically these people have been cured of their fear of that nasty spider picture.

The problem for me is that I was only in Amsterdam for one day. I got only as far as having the fear of the spider created in my brain. No one gave me any drugs. No one cured me of my fear of that spider. So now I'm scared of that spider forever.

And by the way, I'm also scared of cows.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio

ABC News Radio