Texas Health and Human Services kicked off National Post Traumatic Stress Disorder Awareness and Veteran Suicide Prevention Month with a webinar on how trauma can impact soldiers long after their service ends.

In 2021, over 6,000 veterans died by suicide — up by 114 from the number of veteran suicides in 2020. Among those deaths, 25.4% suffered from PTSD. These statistics represent an alarming trend of increase in suicides for veterans since the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs started collecting data in 2001.

Samantha Marasa, a mental health professional who works alongside active duty members at Fort Cavazos, led the webinar training. Marasa is a leader at Strong Star, a research group that aims to provide early intervention and treatment for mental health conditions in both active duty military personnel and veterans.

Marasa emphasized the difference between adverse experiences, also known as “little t” traumas, and actual trauma. “Often in our field … we hear the word trauma thrown around a lot,” Marasa said. “It’s sometimes used in situations, or used to describe situations, that aren’t actually traumatic in nature but might be tragic or very stressful.”

Adverse experiences include divorce, losing a job, losing a pet, or being diagnosed with a chronic illness. Trauma occurs when someone is exposed to actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence. This can include combat exposure, handling human remains, and experiencing sexual assault.

Over 75% of people will experience at least one traumatic event during their lifetime and deal with symptoms of post traumatic stress. However, it does not always lead to the disorder.

Most people are able to experience “normal recovery” after a trauma when they are given time to process, heal, and return to “normal.” Military personnel are often faced with impeded recovery, as the nature of their job forces them to push aside any trauma and keep working, resulting in their being repeatedly retraumatized. Impeded recovery can lead to PTSD.

The situation sounds similar to the experience of first responders. “Doing this line of work and seeing everything that we see causes damage to us. We don’t always see that damage because we’re always gearing up to head out for the next one. So, we just tuck it away and don’t deal with it,” said a first responder in a video for the new R3 program focused on first responder wellness, as previously covered by The Dallas Express.

When military personnel are forced to ignore their traumas, they tend to live in a hypervigilant state, constantly on guard. They also gravitate toward distraction methods such as burying themselves in work or substance abuse to distract their mind from thinking about the traumatic events they experienced.

Additionally, many veterans join the service with prior traumas, including trying to work their way out of a difficult upbringing. These traumas can build upon each other. Experiencing the suicide of other veterans can also add to the trauma.

According to data from the VA, 7% of veterans will have PTSD at some point in their lives, and veterans with deployment histories are three times more likely to develop the disorder.

Some 29% of veterans who served in Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom reported experiencing PTSD following their service. This is significantly higher than the 21% of veterans who served in the Persian Gulf War, the 10% who served in the Vietnam War, and the 3% who served in World War II and the Korean War.

Marasa said PTSD is very treatable, adding, “It’s normal for your brain to process things in that manner.”

Prolonged exposure in a medical setting, cognitive processing therapy, and written exposure therapy are therapeutic methods that have proven effective for veterans suffering from PTSD.

Texas Health and Human Services has three more webinars planned for the month of June. The remaining webinars will focus on the elevated suicide risk for veterans in their first year after service separation, alcohol’s impact on mental health and how the sober curious movement can help, and how families are impacted when someone experiences PTSD.