Medication for PTSD: A Band-Aid, Not a Solution

Tuesday, February 22nd, 2011

Blog editor’s note: Psychologist Karen Binder-Brynes, Ph.D., is a leading expert in the field of post-traumatic stress and a member of the Phoenix House Military Services Advisory Board.  As this week’s guest blogger, she explains why medication alone won’t heal the wounds of war.

Today, I read the heartbreaking story of Senior Airman Anthony Mena, a 23-year-old Iraq War veteran who died at home in 2009 after taking a lethal cocktail of anti-depressants, painkillers, and a sleeping pill.  Mena’s death was not ruled a suicide, but the tragic result of overmedication.

Unfortunately, Airman Mena’s case is not unique.  Research shows us that approximately one in three returning veterans suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Powerful psychiatric drugs are now widely used to treat the symptoms.  If they are not properly monitored, the interaction between these and other medications can be fatal.

I often tell veterans and their loved ones that medications for PTSD and other problems are a help while symptoms are acute, but they won’t relieve the cause of distress.  Far too many servicemen and women rely on prescription drugs for symptom relief without also seeking psychotherapy to understand and deal with the trauma they’ve endured. In the military, there is a stigma associated with seeking help from psychotherapy – despite the fact that the combination of therapy and medication has been proven the most beneficial method of treating issues such as PTSD.  But many veterans don’t realize that PTSD is a normal reaction to trauma.  Biologically, your body adjusts to being in a war zone and may not always reset once you return home.  Medication may help you to focus on other treatment, provide symptomatic relief or just numb the symptoms of readjustment, but often, these symptoms need to be acknowledged and addressed through counseling.  Just numbing the pain now will only cause it to resurface later.

If I had a family member who was returning from the service, I would tell him or her, “You may have a host of prescriptions thrown at you, but don’t believe simply taking a medication will solve your problems.”  Make sure a trusted physician is monitoring your prescriptions and ensuring that one drug doesn’t counteract another—or trigger a new symptom.  Know that when you’re just coming out of a depression, you may actually be at your most vulnerable.  Acknowledge your feelings, and remember that asking for help is not a sign of weakness, but of one of strength.

Karen Binder-Brynes, Ph.D.

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