Psychiatrist seeing increase in veterans coming in amid current events in Afghanistan, 9/11 anniversary

The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and the upcoming 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks are triggering mental health issues for veterans, according to a Northern Virginia psychiatrist who has advice for vets and their families.

“I’m seeing a lot of our younger veterans who are in their 30s and 40s, who have recently been in Iraq and Afghanistan coming in with very strong feelings in many directions about the withdrawal of troops. And I think it’s affecting them greatly in many different ways. And in many subtle ways that I don’t think people would have expected,” said Dr. Lauren Grawert, a psychiatrist at Kaiser Permanente in Falls Church.

Some of the most common symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can be changes in sleep patterns, changes in mood, depression, anxiety, irritability, as well as increases in substance use or alcohol consumption.

“So sleep, mood and alcohol consumption can be some really common signs that people should be on the lookout for,” she said.

Someone who’s struggling might appreciate friends, family or loved ones saying they suspect something might be going on.

“Usually, they want to have this conversation, but have been struggling themselves with how to talk about it. So, having that conversation in a loving and empathic way is really important,” Grawert said.

Grawert said something that used to help people in evolutionary times might work as a disadvantage in the modern world.

Perseveration — thinking about something over and over again — might have helped a hunter-gatherer trying to remember where to find nuts or berries. But now it’s become unhelpful.

“Because if you’re thinking about the painful part of 9/11, or the painful part of a military experience, that can serve to just create more depression, and more anxiety, and more insomnia, and more sadness,” she said.

Grawert said her best advice for folks struggling with PTSD, depression, anxiety and/or substance abuse is to make a conscious effort to disengage.

“When it’s on the news, that just serves to make thinking about it even harder to control. So finding ways to intentionally turn off the news so that your brain is not as likely to be thinking about it over and over is an important coping skill,” she said.

And it’s not just shutting off the news.

“Really make a conscious effort to disengage from social media, and general media for extended periods of time to just allow your emotional sense to heal. That’s really, really important to be able to disengage, to allow your brain into body to heal, particularly as we approach the anniversary of 9/11, for sure,” Grawert said.

Whether someone wants to seek help for themselves or someone else Grawert highly recommends Find Your Words, a mental health website.

“That’s a wonderful website that has some mood tools that family members and patients alike can use to assess their own mood. And it’s even got a Crisis Text Line, it’s got a suicide prevention line that’s a wonderful resource as well,” she said. “The first [step] should really be that empathic conversation though.”

You can reach the crisis text line by texting “WORDS” to 741741, or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline number at 1-800-273-8255.

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Kristi King

Kristi King is a veteran reporter who has been working in the WTOP newsroom since 1990. She covers everything from breaking news to consumer concerns and the latest medical developments.

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