Edmonds Military Wire: A new war as veterans battle stigma of post-traumatic stress disorder

By Michael Schindler

The recent incident involving the Afghans and Staff Sgt. Bales certainly doesn’t help returning veterans in their job search when they come back to the states. Research shows some employers are wary of hiring veterans because of potential mental health issues. Are these concerns justified or is ignorance getting in the way of hiring some very solid talent?

Nearly half of employers — 46 percent — said post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or other mental health issues were challenges in hiring employees with military experience, according to a 2010 Society of Human Resource Management survey. And a 2011 survey of 831 hiring managers by the Apollo Research Institute found that 39 percent were “less favorable” toward hiring military personnel when considering war-related psychological disorders.

Here’s the reality: about 20 percent of Iraq or Afghanistan veterans will develop post-traumatic stress disorder, an anxiety disorder brought on by living through extremely stressful or life-threatening events; the more tours of duty, the greater the risk of PTSD. It can be devastating if untreated and lead to depression, panic attacks, drug abuse, and can even increase the risk of suicide. And with regard to suicide, veterans commit one in five of all suicides in the U.S.

As reported by MSNBC, recent high-profile news about veteran violence and its possible links to PTSD may speak louder than realities of the illness. It’s treatable, rarely leads to violent acts and is not uncommon — 6 to 8 percent of Americans will develop PTSD in their lifetime.

“In the first place, most veterans do not develop PTSD. The minority that does have the same kinds of reactions of people exposed to a hurricane or a car accident,” says Josef Ruzek, Ph.D., director of the dissemination and training division at the National Center for PTSD.

The PTSD fear factor isn’t new. “We’ve seen the stigma of the crazy war veteran before. It was especially harsh after Vietnam, when the nation didn’t really have the kind of support for men and women who serve in the military that they have today,” says Bronze Star recipient Ryan Gallucci, who recently returned from a tour of duty in Iraq.

That support, which includes attempts by the Department of Veterans Affairs to educate the public about PTSD and to encourage affected vets to seek treatment, may have unintended consequences. More civilian employers know that servicemen and women are at greater risk for PTSD.

“There’s been a major cultural shift in how soldiers speak up about the mental toll of war, but also a potential backlash against our attempt to de-stigmatize PTSD,” Gallucci says.

Finding a civilian job can already be a hurdle, particularly for Iraq-war era vets. Unemployment rates have been consistently higher for this group than non-civilians of the same ages. According to a recent report by the Department of Veterans Affairs, male veterans ages 18 to 24 who have served since September 2001 have an unemployment rate of just over 29 percent, compared 17.6 percent of non-veterans of the same ages.

There’s no evidence that the higher unemployment rate for young vets is due to fears about mental health issues. In fact, research shows there is a positive bias toward hiring a veteran if she or he has a clearly transferable, comparable skill set to a non-veteran, says Meredith Kleykamp, Ph.D, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, who researches consequences of military service and is married to a veteran.

There may also be a discrepancy in how veterans perceive they are being treated, Kleykamp says, versus how they actually are.

“So few people are actually serving in these wars. There may be employer ignorance. And vets may feel there is a lack of understanding from people and employers that they meet,” she says.

Still, while experts welcome greater public awareness of the difficulties veterans may face, that growing understanding might work against them when it comes to presumptions of mental health.

Bottom line: Hiring veterans is a good move and the chance of your veteran hire facing issues related to PTSD is minimal. Step up and make the offer – and if you are a veteran, continue to serve well by serving your employer well – and if you need help, ask.

For information on PTSD, visit Operation Military Family’s PTSD Guide.

Michael Schindler, Navy veteran, and president of Edmonds-based Operation Military Family, is a guest writer for several national publications, author of the book “Operation Military Family” and “The Military Wire” blog. He is also a popular keynote and workshop speaker who reaches thousands of service members and their families every year through workshops and seminars that include  “How to Battle-Ready Your Relationship” or “What Your Mother-in-Law Didn’t Tell You.”  He received the 2010 Outstanding Patriotic Service Award from the Washington State Department of Veterans Affairs.

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