Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is often associated with members of the military, but the problem extends well beyond soldiers and veterans: According to the Anxiety and Depression Society of America, more than 7 million Americans currently suffer from PTSD.
Dr. Jill Gover, of the LGBT Community Center of the Desert in Palm Springs, explained the difference between general trauma and PTSD.
“A lot of people experience trauma,” Gover said. “It doesn’t mean they have PTSD. Most of us associate PTSD with war. War is such a huge, catastrophic event that is outside the general course of human experience. That’s one of the definitions that distinguish that kind of trauma as post-traumatic stress. Most of the time, it’s associated with war, extreme abuse or torture. The other large category (consists of) people who’ve been sexually or physically abused, especially as children.
Mac McClelland is a journalist who went to Haiti after the devastating earthquake in 2010. After the assignment ended, she was diagnosed with PTSD, and later went on to write a book titled Irritable Hearts: A PTSD Love Story.
“I noticed I had symptoms while I was still there,” McClelland said. “… When I was having symptoms, I wasn’t like, ‘Oh, this is post-traumatic stress disorder’—I was freaking out. When I got back to San Francisco, I was there for a day before I saw my therapist, and she was the one who said I had symptoms of PTSD. It was very obvious and clear that something was terribly wrong.”
McClelland said she never thought her profession would expose her to PTSD.
“Like most people, I associated PTSD as being related to combat veterans,” McClelland said. “… I didn’t know hardly anything, which I think is true for a lot of people, but I think awareness is better now. I thought it wasn’t even possible for people to have PTSD other than combat veterans, when, in fact, rape victims, sexual-assault survivors and abuse survivors are a way bigger population of people with PTSD than combat veterans are. It’s just not in our cultural knowledge or understanding.”
McClelland said she took a holistic approach to her treatment.
“I was going to a lot of therapy. I was seeing a somatic therapist, which focuses on a lot of sensations in your body,” she said. “I went to that for years, and I still see a therapist who does that. I never took any pharmaceuticals. For me, that was really helpful. I also do yoga, and there’s a lot of research that yoga is very useful in treating PTSD. (I’ve taken) kind of a holistic approach and changed what my life looks like, which not everyone has the option to do. I make a lot more time and space for self-care, which I’m very lucky to be able to do.”
Gover said one of the most effective treatments for PTSD is eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR). According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, “EMDR is a psychotherapy for PTSD. EMDR can help (patients) process upsetting memories, thoughts and feelings related to the trauma. By processing these experiences, (patients) can get relief from PTSD symptoms.”
Gover used plumbing to make an analogy. “Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing is like Drano: It just flushes that memory. That’s the easiest way I can explain it. Looking at the clinical trials that the Veterans Administration has done with it, it’s very effective.”
Gover said there is no typical recovery process or timeline for PTSD.
“It really depends on what the trauma was,” Gover said. “You might have somebody who had a very horrific one-time sexual abuse experience as a child, and afterward, there were PTSD symptoms. But let’s say that person came from a healthy and intact family system, and the child was relatively healthy, and nothing else about the personality development was disturbed in any way. That would likely take a lot less time to heal from than, say, a child of the same age who came from a very dysfunctional family where there’s substance abuse, and then was repeatedly raped in a family system for years. That healing of PTSD would take much longer. It depends on who the individual is—the resiliency, the environment to support them, and how intense the occurrence and frequency is.”
McClelland said she urges anyone with trauma-related issues to seek help.
“I went to see a professional on day one. It made all the difference,” McClelland said. “Otherwise, I’d be flailing and struggling the whole time. I’d definitely advocate seeing a professional, especially someone who has a trauma-specialty background. I live in a really small town in Oregon, and we have amazing trauma-focused therapists here … but not all therapists specialize in trauma; it is a specialty. But therapy is expensive, and not everyone can access it.”
Gover said there are definite risks when PTSD goes untreated. “Somebody with PTSD who doesn’t have it treated is more likely to have problems later on in their relationships; problems professionally focusing on work and employment; and problems with substance abuse.
Fortunately, there are a lot of good resources available locally for those suffering from PTSD or trauma-related problems.
“There’s a good amount of therapists in the Coachella Valley who have expertise in treating trauma,” Gover said. “We’re very fortunate that the Riverside County Public Health department has evidence-based, trauma-informed therapy available. … Of course, we have the LGBT Community Center of the Desert, which has clinicians trained in trauma-informed therapy. (Many) of the therapists in private practice in this area have some training in PTSD. I would recommend any therapist with a specialty in treating trauma.”
For more information on the LGBT Community Center of the Desert’s Scott Hines Mental Health Clinic, call 760-416-7899, ext. 1, or visit thecenterps.org/index.php/services/mental-health-clinic.