When veterans returned from Vietnam, a stigma existed that made it nearly impossible for those affected by the war to talk about their experiences.
That stigma led to thousands of service members not seeking aid for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and instead turning to alcoholism and drug use, which often resulted in homelessness and a host of other struggles.
Now, a cultural shift in the U.S. Armed Forces has made it more acceptable for these warriors to seek assistance, and while percentages of troops suffering from the disorder is still high, many recognize that there are people willing and able to help them cope and heal emotional scars.
One such individual, Heidi Kraft, deployed to Iraq as a clinical psychologist in 2004, where she helped deployed Marines make sense of the violence and the pain of their experiences.
Now, she and Barbara McDonald bring their experiences to San Diego State University’s College of Extended Studies to teach two new classes designed to help understand the human experience of stress, ranging from a difficult test in school, an argument with your boss, learning of a life-threatening illness, the loss of a loved one, up to combat trauma and other experiences of war.
Not just for veterans
The two-course series is an effort to help individuals — generally veterans and their loved ones — cope with the toll their traumatic experiences have left behind.
“Combat – Stress, Trauma and Its Psychological Effect” will provide individuals with the understanding and coping mechanisms to allow family and friends to assist with the healing process of combat veterans diagnosed with PTSD.
“I hope to have the class be very interactive,” Kraft said. “There should be a level of cathartic storytelling, a lot of discussion, with the goal of students leaving the class motivated to overcome their afflictions.”
Veterans aren't the only ones to suffer from PTSD; the course applies to anyone suffering through trauma or extreme stress.
Since more than five million Americans suffer from PTSD during any given year, a class dedicated to understanding and overcoming the disorder is particularly beneficial.
Additionally, as nearly 20 percent of veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from PTSD and San Diego County is home to the largest concentration of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans in the U.S, it was a logical step to drive the creation of the classes, said Georg Matt, chair of SDSU’s Department of Psychology.
“We realize that we live in San Diego — a very prominent military community,” Matt said.
“But of course, it’s not just veterans and active-duty service members who deal with this stress load; there are also family members and friends who could take this class and better understand how to help their loved one as well as themselves.”
Offering the class through the College of Extended Studies also allows for a wider audience and a greater chance of helping more of the community come to grips with their own stress, Matt said.
A solid base
The first class, “Stress and Trauma,” starts March 5 and will begin with the basics of how stress is defined and measured by experts, what causes it and how and why people respond to it differently. The class will also provide information on what can be done to prevent stress or reduce its effects.
Each week, stress reduction techniques will be taught and practiced, but McDonald notes that these classes are not therapy sessions and will not take the place of that form of healing. Instead, they will provide a better understanding of why the students may be feeling a certain way and to help them to realize better methods of coping.
“Knowledge is a huge aspect of coping,” said McDonald, who also lectures in SDSU’s Department of Psychology. “Whether it’s having access to resources or just knowing that someone cares about you or relates to what you’re going through, that knowledge can make all the difference in successful recovery.”