COLUMBUS, Ga. (WRBL) — Long misunderstood, the way people view and treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has changed drastically over time. The disease is often associated with soldiers, however its current definition extends to traumatic events beyond warfare, such as rape and natural disasters.

Often linked with increased risk of suicide, experts now emphasize the importance of receiving treatment for what was once viewed as an untreatable condition. September marks National Suicide Prevention Month in the United States.  

“We have record of PTSD going all the way back to the Greek and Roman wars,” said Pastoral Institute CEO Thomas Waynick, who will step down from the position at the end of October. Prior to joining the Pastoral Institute, Waynick was a U.S. Army chaplain for 35 years and director of the Family Life Training Center at Fort Moore.

National Geographic reported in a 2020 story accounts of symptoms aligning with PTSD were recorded as much as 3,000 years ago in Mesopotamian cuneiform tablets.

“Post-traumatic stress disorder is my body’s physiological, emotional, mental reaction to a life-threatening event and doesn’t have to threaten my life,” said Waynick.

While there are many symptoms of PTSD, the Mayo Clinic notes symptoms generally fall into four categories. These include intrusive memories, negative changes in thinking and mood, avoidance and changes in physical and emotional reactions.

“I think there was a time, maybe during the Vietnam era, where we believed that, well, if you have PTSD, that’s a life sentence,” said Waynick. He continued, “But there’s a lot of things we can do to help people touch their stories, process this stuff and get better.”

During the Vietnam War era, the term “post-Vietnam syndrome” was adopted to describe the symptoms many soldiers experienced upon returning home. Before that, during the World Wars, similar constellations of symptoms were described as “shell-shock,” “combat fatigue” or “war neurosis.”

National Geographic reports 40% of all discharges during WWII were because of combat fatigue. At the time, medical professional believed removing soldiers from war situations would and medicating them with barbiturates would ameliorate the condition.

A 1990 comparative study estimated 50,000 or more Vietnam War veterans had committed suicide, concluding they were at “exceedingly high risk of suicide compared with other veterans and non-veterans of the same age.”

In 1980, PTSD was added to the DSM-III, however the listing has been modified in subsequent DSM editions. It now includes a broader range of traumas beyond warfare. The DSM-5 includes not just self-experienced trauma but also learning about trauma experienced by a loved one, witnessing a traumatic event and  also being repeatedly exposed to details of a traumatic event in work-related instances.

Waynick said, “When we began to understand what PTSD was, then we began to realize, well, you know what? This happens in much more than just a combat situation.”

By Waynick’s explanation, the reality of traumatic events is that they are a disruption of a person’s perceived sense of safety. The solution to healing from PTSD is not avoiding the trauma but rather finding ways to reaffirm a sense of security, he said.

“If we’ve been through trauma, we know that the ability at some point to begin to give voice to that event is important of the healing that surrounds and progress in dealing with PTSD,” Waynick said.

He continued, “There’s a pop expression in psychology that says, ‘When the demon goes unnamed, it exercises power over you. When you name the demon, you begin to exercise power over it.”

While therapy is an option for addressing trauma, Waynick explained there are other ways to give voice to the event. Journaling, prayer and talking to loved ones are all viable methods for addressing past trauma, the psychology expert said.

Other treatment routes for PTSD include medications like SSRIs and Venlafaxine, an SNRI, according to the National Center for PTSD. Recent trial studies are looking at the viability of MDMA, also known as Ecstasy or Molly, therapy for PTSD treatment.

“All of the healing with grief and trauma is a sense of acceptance,” said Waynick.

He said, “[T]he way we heal … is safe, caring relationships.”

PTSD has been shown to be a risk factor for suicide. A 2021 study reports PTSD accounts for 0.6% of suicides in men and 3.5% of suicides in women. It estimated 54% of suicides in people with PTSD could be attributed to the disorder.

According to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, “… [A] study analyzing data from the National Comorbidity Survey, a nationally representative sample, showed that PTSD alone out of six anxiety diagnoses was significantly associated with suicidal ideation or attempts.”

If you or a loved one is in a crisis situation or struggling with thoughts of suicide, call or text 988. The national Suicide and Crisis Lifeline is available 24/7 in English and Spanish.