by Megan Hobza
Fourth of July fireworks displays, both sanctioned and illegal, grow denser each year. Each year, animal welfare and veterans groups remind us to be considerate towards pets and neighbors experiencing stress and trauma. What is this trauma? Sustainable City investigates.
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), as summarized by the American Psychiatric Association, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) can occur after directly experiencing or witnessing second-hand a traumatic event or series of events. “People with PTSD have intense, disturbing thoughts and feelings related to their experience that last long after the traumatic event has ended.”
PTSD has long been misunderstood as a weakness. After the first two World Wars, Western veterans with PTSD were derided with the terms “shell shock” and “war neurosis” and were disciplined with pain, kept in solitary, given electroshock and chloroform treatment, and underwent shaming physical reeducation.
Despite advances in public awareness, people with PTSD today are shamed for being “triggered”. Bullying vets with PTSD remains on the landscape: MilitaryDotCom, a non-governmental organization targeting veterans, suggests with grim joviality that vets triggered by fireworks “head over to the Super Wal-Mart and take matters into your own hands.”
Asked to respond to the above quote, NAMI Whittier Coordinator Rita Murray said, “That site may have a particular point of view. For somebody who regularly checks into that site, they may think of it as advice, which is very scary.” NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, is a grassroots mental health organization providing advocacy and support for people living with mental illness and their families.
U.S. military veteran Wes Murray, who volunteers at the Whittier Public Library Veterans Resource Center, says, “If you served your country in the Vietnam war and you were drafted, you didn’t have a choice. Your number came up and you had to go in. You’re on the battlefield in the middle of the night, all these fireworks go off. No one has warned you or told you something is coming in. Has the enemy fired, or what? When I was in the air force flying missions over Vietnam, for us, the question was, could we hit our own people on the ground? We talked to a veteran who was on the ground at that point, and he said ‘yes, the B-52 airstrikes killed some of my friends’.”
Describing veterans’ return from a tour of duty, Murray says, “Between 48 and 72 hours later they were back on the street with no support and minimal support for transition. They’ve put their life on the line for the country and they’re not getting help and support.
“I’ve seen a number of veterans that are in their 90s that were serving in WWII and are still suffering from PTSD. One couldn’t even get through introducing himself,” Murray said. “I can understand some people who served in the military during less stressful times, but for some, it was traumatic. It creates lasting effects and PTSD is just the name of what the issue is.”
Claudia Morales, LCSW, PPSC, of Whittier-based Social Justice Healing, says, “The myth is that time heals all wounds, but in fact it’s been shown that the brain stores trauma and negative experiences that can feel as if things just happened, and it’s related to our body responses – dizziness, headache, sweatiness, feeling sick, from a situation where we felt victimized, attacked or afraid. A lot of cortisol is released in the body as well. It’s a stress response and it’s toxic. Over time it can lead to the early onset of disease.”
About people experiencing PTSD on the Fourth of July, Morales says, “It’s also people who have been around community violence. If the symptoms are very severe, and they don’t have a safety plan, a trigger can cause dissociation, anger, hyperarousal, hyperactivation, and lack of control. It can be very frightening and dangerous. It can result in impulsive choices that may not be healthy.”
Morales says that seeking assistance is key. “The misconception can be that it can be treated by thinking positively or on your own, that you don’t need anybody to help you get through it,” she says. “Mental health tools and having support from a trusted person can give people the proper channels to alleviate suffering in combination with the right self-care, especially if it’s interfering with daily life, like work, sleep, things that you need for survival.”
For someone facing an immediate event that may trigger an unpleasant response, Morales recommends making a plan that might include wearing earplugs all day, listening to music, getting away from city noise and into nature, going to the movies, and “really filling up the day with activities that will be soothing and getting extra self-care, getting support from neighbors and friends who want to avoid it, checking in with your therapist.”
In addition to making a plan, Morales and Rita Murray both recommend crisis hotlines as a resource. Murray said, “I called the Veterans Crisis Line to see if that would be for people experiencing a trauma, and yes, absolutely, they have people on staff 24/7,” she said. “There’s so much to know about PTSD. NAMI and Veterans Affairs have really good resources.” Morales says, “A warm line to speak with somebody who will listen and acknowledge can help with even just feeling heard in that moment.”
In her practice, Morales treats trauma using a protocol called EMDR. “EMDR is designed for complex trauma because it reprocesses the initial experience to where it’s no longer reactivated,” she said. While it can be intense, she said, less complex traumas such as firefighters with first responder PTSD can find resolution in as little as one session. “It’s cool to see people get better so quickly, and they are surprised too. [Patients] have told me things that are so difficult to heal from, like domestic violence, sexual trauma, grief, mental abuse, and in two or three months they heal. The protocol was well developed.”
- The Veterans Resource Center at Central Library is open 10am-2pm, Monday-Friday
- NAMI Whittier support groups take place Thursday nights in Uptown. Info: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Call 1-800-273-8255 to reach the Veterans Crisis Line. This warm line is part of theNational Suicide Prevention Hotline. Callers do not need to be suicidal to call and talk about trauma and stress.
Claudia Morales, LCSW and Social Justice Healing does not solicit reviews online.