University of Connecticut researchers have launched a study to determine whether a new method of treating post-traumatic stress disorder could help veterans of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.
The U.S. Justice Department has given the UConn Health Center a $750,000 grant for the two–year study, which will compare the effectiveness of the new treatment and one currently being used. Researchers are seeking 90 male veterans of the wars to participate. They will receive free therapy and be placed randomly in either treatment.
The Justice Department is funding the study in hopes of decreasing the number of veterans who exhibit dysfunctional behaviors and break the law while suffering from PTSD, said Dr. Julian Ford, psychiatrist and principal investigator for the study.
Those with post-traumatic stress disorder can experience high levels of anger and irritability and difficulty sleeping. They may have flashbacks to stressful experiences and may be unable to enjoy everyday activities.
"The goals of the two therapies are very much the same," said Ford, who developed the new seven-step trial therapy.
In the first, more traditional and widely used treatment, patients face their fears while concentrating on hurtful memories, Ford said. Referred to as "prolonged exposure" therapy, it also places patients in situations they would normally avoid.
The newer treatment focuses on increasing a veteran's skills for controlling anger and other emotions, he said.
Bottling Up Emotions
"Actual combat is one of the most intense experiences anyone could ever have," said Dr. David Johnson, a psychologist and director of the Post Traumatic Stress Center in New Haven. Johnson, who is not involved in the new study, treated veterans suffering from PTSD for 17 years at West Haven Veterans Hospital.
While soldiers are at war, nothing harmful may be happening most of the time, he said, but that possibility always looms. This puts military personnel in a constant state of fear and stress that can stay with them when they come home.
After soldiers who have had difficult experiences return home, they can have trouble expressing pain and explaining to families and friends what they have witnessed. This can be exacerbated if they are thought of as heroes, which can make soldiers feel as if they shouldn't complain, causing them to bottle up thoughts and emotions, Johnson said.
According to the UConn Health Center, more than 13,000 men and women from Connecticut have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Of these, 85 percent are men and of those, up to 40 percent will develop PTSD and at least half will have anger issues.
National studies mirror these results.
For a study published in the June issue of the "Archives of General Psychiatry," more than 18,000 Army and National Guard soldiers were contacted between 2004 and 2007 and interviewed within a year of their returning from Iraq. Between 8.5 percent and 14 percent had PTSD or depression with serious functional impairment, and 23.2 percent to 31.1 percent experienced some impairment.
The UConn researchers say they hope that the new TARGET therapy — the acronym for Trauma Affect Regulation: Guide for Education and Therapy — will be found as effective as the well-established prolonged exposure method.
"Most of the time when we're stressed we go into an alarm state," said Ford, who has worked for 25 years with veterans who suffer from PTSD and their families. People naturally have great coping skills to focus on their emotions, he said, and his process helps to deal with stress when it arises.
Veterans interested in participating in the study must go through a phone screening to establish eligibility. If selected, they will receive 10 sessions of therapy, followed by interviews three or four months after treatment to see how they're doing.
Those interested in participating in the UConn study may call study coordinator Michelle Slivinsky at 860-679-2214.