This is the third in a four-part series about Afghanistan Veterans and how they can get help through VA. Read the other parts:
Part 1: Afghanistan: How Veterans can reconcile service
Part 2: Afghanistan: How Veterans can learn from Vietnam Veterans
Part 4: Afghanistan: Resources available for PTSD
The third part of this series focuses on spouses and caregivers, who are often on the front lines of helping a Veteran deal with posttraumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.
PTSD can alter a family’s relationships. Family member reactions can include sympathy, negative feelings, avoidance, depression, anger, guilt and health problems. Dr. Jennifer Vasterling, the chief of psychology at the VA Boston Healthcare System and affiliated investigator with the National Center for PTSD, said figuring out how to help a family member with PTSD can be hard to know how to best approach.
“As a caregiver, you don’t want to tell somebody that they shouldn’t feel the way that they’re feeling,” Vasterling said. “It’s tempting. If you see someone you love that’s in pain, you want to say, ‘It’s okay. You shouldn’t be sad.’ It’s really hard for caregivers or loved ones to step back and say, ‘Okay, this person who I care very much about right now is super sad, and I’m going to be supportive, but I have to allow them to be sad.’”
‘Push us to get help’
Senior Enlisted Advisor to the Chairman Ramón “CZ” Colón-López was one of those who deployed to Afghanistan. He battled PTSD for years before his wife, Janet, helped him realize he needed treatment. He said he’s proof that a spouse or caregiver can help a Veteran.
“Don’t let us get away with it,” he said. “Do what Janet did and push us to get help. Hell, drive us to the damn clinic. Do yourself a favor and go ahead and make sure you seek the help that you need.”
Dr. Sonya Norman, director of the National Center for PTSD Consultation Program, said helping Veterans deal with the range of emotions is an important step.
“The Veteran needs to feel what they’re feeling,” Norman said. “One of the things I hear a lot from Veterans is sometimes they want to talk about it, but they feel like they can’t because their loved one won’t understand, or they feel like the loved one will learn something about them that’s unforgivable. They’ll see them in a totally different light.”
Some caregivers may not feel ready to hear about a particular issue, Norman said. But that’s normal, and when they are ready, she added, telling a Veteran “I’m here to listen” while letting them know they are loved can spur a Veteran to open up.
“Acknowledging that can be very helpful,” she said.
According to Norman, if a Veteran isn’t willing to take that step to talk about difficult topics, just saying, “If you don’t want to talk about it, I’m here, loving you, too,” can help.
“We also hear a lot of Veterans that are worried, especially if there’s guilt involved, say, ‘I don’t want to hurt another person. I don’t want to hurt this person by sharing my pain with them, and now they have my pain,’” Vasterling said. “But as the caregiver, you can say, ‘It’s okay. I’m here to share your pain.’”
PTSD can also affect children, who can mirror the Veteran’s behavior or try to act like an adult. This can lead to a variety or problems: difficulty with school, sadness, anxiety and relationship problems.
Both Vasterling and Norman said getting Veterans the help they need is important. Critically, spouses and caregivers should know VA and other agencies are here to help.
Coaching Into Care
Coaching Into Care is a VA telephone based service that assists family members and friends in having productive and supportive conversations about seeking mental health care with the Veteran in their life. Topics include:
Recognizing the Signs – https://www.mirecc.va.gov/coaching/recognize-the-signs.asp
Tips for Family & Friends – https://www.mirecc.va.gov/coaching/tips-for-family-friends.asp
Family and friends can reach Coaching Into Care toll free at 1-888-823-7458.
Mobile app resource
PTSD Family Coach, available at https://www.ptsd.va.gov/appvid/mobile/familycoach_app.asp, is an app similar to PTSD Coach. PTSD Family Coach provides support for concerned family members of those with PTSD.
- Information about PTSD and how it affects those who care about someone with PTSD.
- Tips to help families better support a loved one with PTSD – and themselves. The app includes information on how to find counseling.
- Facts about counseling for individuals or couples managing PTSD in a relationship.
- Tools to help family members manage stress.
- Self-created support network of people to connect with when in need.
Learn about PTSD and different treatments through a whiteboard series.
The Veterans Crisis Line connects Veterans in crisis and their families and friends with VA responders through a 24/7 hotline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255), PRESS 1. There is also a 24/7 online Confidential Veterans Chat or text message support at 838255.
The VA Caregiver Support program provides services to support family members who are taking care of a Veteran: 1-855-260-3274
VA’s Coaching Into Care program helps family and friends of returning Veterans find the right words to help their loved one get into care. For free, confidential coaching email or call: 1-888-823-7458
The Vet Center Combat Call Center is a 24/7 call center for combat Veterans and their families to talk about their military experience or issues about readjustment to civilian life: 1-877-WAR-VETS
The Psychological Health Resource Center offers 24/7 support for service members and their families. Staff can answer questions about mental health symptoms and help the service members and their families find resources. Call 866-966-1020, email, or live chat.
The National Resource Directory links to over 10,000 services and resources that support recovery, rehabilitation and reintegration for wounded, ill and injured service members, Veterans, their families and those who support them.
Give an Hour is a nonprofit organization offering free mental health services to U.S. military personnel and their families affected by service in Iraq and Afghanistan.