Boston Marathon Bombing Triggered PTSD Symptoms in Veterans

In the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, 1918, hostility ceased between Germany and The Allies marking the unofficial end of World War I. The following year, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson named “Armistice Day” the first official holiday honoring the heroes of the war. Another war passed, and in 1954 President Dwight D. Eisenhower issued the “Veterans Day Proclamation.” From then on, November 11th was a day to take off work, watch parades and show pride, honor, and gratitude for all American soldiers. For the most part, the world admired America’s heroism after we helped defeat Hitler in WWII; however, as opinions about our participation in wars over the years have become more scattered, even American sentiment on Veteran’s Day has lost some its umph. Among veterans, stories of neglect by the Veteran’s Association abound.

What is the government doing for veterans these days?

The Veteran’s Association invests quite a bit in research addressing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in our military population. PTSD is an anxiety disorder that can develop after experiencing an emotionally traumatic event, like death, sexual abuse or combat. PTSD affects almost 7% of the U.S. population, but for veterans, this number is significantly higher: one in five.

In the brain, circuits evolved to detect, learn about and cope with threats in our environment. Normal function of these circuits helps us survive, but in cases like PTSD, something malfunctions. Memories of events are so strong they often arise at inappropriate times. Two major symptoms of PTSD are intrusion, or flashbacks, unwanted memories, nightmares and avoidance of people, places or things associated with the traumatic event. Stimuli similar to ones that were present during the trauma can induce these symptoms and cause great distress in patients with PTSD.

For this reason, the VA funded a study to investigate how environmental stimuli in the Boston Marathon bombing on April 15, 2013, may have affected veterans with PTSD. A team at Boston University School of Medicine, led by Dr. Mark Miller, interviewed 71 Boston area veterans one week after the marathon.  Although important, given what we know about memory and PTSD, what they found was not surprising. The bombing and lockdown that followed triggered flashbacks and intrusive memories in the 38 percent of veterans interviewed who reported distress. In addition, when comparing these results to symptom data recorded two months prior, the amount of distress correlated with changes in PTSD symptoms, mostly those of intrusion and avoidance.

Thanks to the veterans’ participation in the study, we know that in the wake of a national tragedy like a bombing or shooting, it will be important to identify and provide treatment for witnesses with pre-existing PTSD. That’s at least one more reason to honor our veterans. As for the government, President Obama signed an executive order in August of this year to improve mental health services for veterans and their families. In addition, the Department of Defense has awarded 3,400 researchers $1.9 billion to fund 2,300 projects to improve prediction and treatment of PTSD. by: JoAnna Klein

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