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Facing mental illness head-on may help afflicted veterans cope
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Gulf War veteran Rob Ruk puts together a laser cut wooden gun puzzle. Ruk has been diagnosed with PTSD and depression and supports veterans of recent wars who speak out about the condition.

Just getting through life sometimes requires finding good in an otherwise bad situation.

Could this principle apply to the devastatingly high rate of mental illness in military veterans?

Rob Ruk, a Gulf War veteran and Gainesville resident, thinks it might.

“It has gotten better,” he said of the stigma surrounding post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and other psychological illnesses, particularly as they relate to veterans.

Ruk believes the sheer prevalence of these conditions among former service members has helped educate society about how mental illness manifests and, ultimately, pushed more people in treatment.

“People need to understand that the more information they have on PTSD ... the better off we are,” Ruk said.

It’s almost cliché in its devastating toll. Every war leaves its combatants shaken.

An estimated 1 in 5 Iraq and Afghanistan vets have PTSD, for example, according to studies and Department of Defense reports. That’s 300,000 individuals. Yet only 40 percent of vets screened for serious emotional problems seek treatment.

Suffering in silence is common among those with mental illness. And perhaps more so in vets.

“Marines don’t cry,” Ruk said of the prevailing mentality when he served. “Marines don’t have feelings. Marines don’t get depressed. That’s the way it was .. you suck it up.”

Those who couldn’t gut it out, Ruk said, “were either passed off as being crazy or not tough enough.”

The stigma of mental health can rear its head by keeping those who need treatment from seeking it for fear of personal embarrassment, disappointing comrades or the potential loss of career advancement opportunities, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

So vets sometimes hide their symptoms as a result, potentially leading to drug abuse, homelessness and broken relationships with family and friends.

Vets are also 50 percent more likely to commit suicide than their civilian counterparts, making that stigma deadly.

Dr. Thomas Joiner, a leading psychologist in the realm of academic research on suicide, posits that several things must coincide for someone to kill himself or herself.

It begins with a desire to die stemming from a disconnect with family, friends and society, plus the feeling of being burdensome to others. The ability to take action then originates with a desensitization to violence.

Ruk remembers one fellow service member from his time in the Marines who left the barracks, made his way to the nearby train tracks, laid down and waited for the locomotive to come rushing over.

“We never knew what exactly happened to him,” he said. “But the talk was that that dude was crazy.”

The idea that mentally ill individuals are “crazy” is one of the most pernicious stigmas around. After all, those with mental health problems are no more likely to commit violent crime than the general population, according to federal health agencies.

And just 3 to 5 percent of violent acts are attributable to individuals with a severe disorder like schizophrenia.

This misconception lends undue credibility to ideas about willpower and positive thinking, which are not scientific cures or treatments for mental illnesses.

It also speaks to why stigmas coalesce around mental health disorders and not physical illness.

“You can see a broken arm,” Dr. Teresa Fletcher, a professor in the department of clinical mental health counseling at the University of North Georgia, said. “And because you can see it, it’s a lot easier to relate to a physical illness. Mental illness is intangible.”

Mental health treatment has always been playing catch-up. PTSD, for example, was only given official recognition in 1980. But there is no doubt that the condition has always existed.

In the days of 20th century’s world wars, a veteran was said to be “shell-shocked” when suffering from the disorder that can cause recurring nightmares and overwhelming anxiety in those it afflicts.

Ruk knows this all too well. He was diagnosed with PTSD in the late 1990s after exiting the Marine Corps. But it had taken him years to get to that point.

“My anger was out of control,” he said. “My drinking was out of control. It wasn’t good. I just didn’t understand what was going on. I was at a turning point. It was either suicide or figuring out what was going on.”

Thanks to the openness and honesty of veterans like Ruk, as well as countless courageous others who share their stories of battling mental illness, professionals believe progress is being made in eroding stigma — however slight.

“I think we have made a lot of strides, but we still have a long way to go,” Fletcher said.

This progress really began with Vietnam veterans, Fletcher said, who did not receive the same kind of homecoming that later generations of service members did.

But they continued the fight when they returned, battling mental health stigmas and helping to launch a new dialogue around disorders experienced by the stereotypical burly, macho Marine.

As a result, it seems more acceptable than ever to discuss mental health and even admit to suffering from a specific condition.

And for many people struggling with mental illness, this is the first step toward treatment, where major relief can come when first diagnosed.

“Not everybody’s brain works the same, just like not everybody’s body works the same,” Fletcher said. “Once you give them the label, there is that validation. That gives them hope.”

Put another way, a diagnosis lets individuals know that they are not uniquely disturbed, and intellectual understanding can alleviate pain and dislocation.

Ruk said it took him some time to feel that sense of relief that a diagnosis can bring. At first, talking about his problems brought back a rush of terrible memories and feelings as visceral as the day they were lived.

And just last year, for example, Ruk checked himself into a VA hospital for a two-week stint.

The stress of life’s day-to-day challenges can be a trigger for him, reigniting the emotions that his brain has tied or associated with the experiences that first caused his PTSD to develop.

But the knowledge of his condition, and a stronger understanding of how it manifests, has been enormously beneficial.

“Now I know what to look for,” Ruk said. “I’m still learning, but I’m in a much safer place now.”

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