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OP-ED: On National PTSD Awareness Day, a call for accelerated action

Today is National Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Injury (PTSD/I) Awareness Day, when we formally recognize the devastating impacts of PTSD/I and discuss the steps we still must take to ensure mental health resources and effective treatments are available to everyone who needs them. 

As a combat Veteran with over 38 years of service, the issue of PTSD/I is close to my heart. I’ve witnessed the devastations of war, and I’ve watched friends and fellow Troops bring this invisible wound home – taking a tremendous toll on their lives, families, and jobs.

An estimated 11 to 20 percent of Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom Veterans endure PTSD/I each year - in addition to the 12 percent of Gulf War, and 15 percent of Vietnam Veterans that suffer annually. With an established link between PTSD/I and an increased risk of depression, suicide, and drug and alcohol abuse, the military is in a mental health crisis. 

Sadly, the designation of June 27 as our National PTSD/I Awareness Day is in honor of a Veteran we lost to PTSD/I. Staff Sergeant Joe Biel, whose birthday is June 27, was a member of the North Dakota National Guard who took his own life in 2007 following two tours in Iraq.  

Staff Sergeant Biel and our Veterans aren’t alone in their battle against PTSD/I. In the United States, experts estimate that 8 million adults suffer it every year, with 7 to 8 percent of our population receiving a PTSD/I diagnosis at some point in their lives. That’s roughly 26 million people. 

PTSD/I can occur when someone experiences or witnesses a traumatic event, and experts are now warning that a new threat is on the horizon:  COVID-19. 

The COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns combined mental health stressors similar to those seen in mass disasters, isolation, and loss – a combination that could cause long term emotional trauma and PTSD/I in some individuals. Experts also found that the pandemic has exacerbated symptoms of individuals already dealing with a mental health condition.  

While we work to understand the impact of COVID-19 on our mental health, we must accelerate our efforts to discover innovative and effective treatments and ensure access to all in need. 

Significant progress has been made in our understanding, diagnosis, and treatment of PTSD/I, but more must be done. Only an estimated 40 percent of Veterans diagnosed with PTSD/I find relief with current treatments, leaving too many in the battle. 

New models of treatment that focus on coordination of care and the inclusion of innovative, new methods need our support and focus; which is why I introduced the “TREAT PTSD” Act in Congress. This legislation ensures that the VA provides all Veterans diagnosed with PTSD/I access to a promising treatment called Stellate Ganglion Block (SGB). 

SGB is an injection of local anesthetic near a collection of nerves in the neck that control the fight-or-flight response. Used since the 1920s, SGB is a simple outpatient procedure found to alleviate common PTSD/I symptoms including hyper-arousal, exaggerated startle responses, and anxiety. The procedure has a success rate between 70 – 80 percent, and when combined with effective psychological interventions is proven to provide lasting relief to those suffering from PTSD/I. 

SGB is just one of several new treatments that medical experts are using to treat PTSD/I, and it’s been life-changing and lifesaving for many of our Veterans and neighbors. 

On National PTSD/I Awareness Day, we join to support the mental health of our Service Members, Veterans, and neighbors, and call for accelerated and focused work to find an effective treatment for this devastating injury.  

If you or someone you know needs help, please reach out to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357), or the Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 (Press 1).  
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