Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

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PTSD is a psychological response to the experience of intense traumatic events, including those that threaten life. For military veterans, the trauma may relate to direct combat duties, being in a dangerous war zone, or taking part in peacekeeping missions under difficult and stressful conditions.

It is normal to experience distress when confronted with trauma, and most people recover over the first week or two, particularly with the help of caring family members and friends. However, for some people the symptoms do not seem to resolve quickly. It is also common for symptoms to vary in intensity over time. Some people go for long periods without any significant problems, only to relapse when they have to deal with other major life stresses. In rare cases, the symptoms may not appear for months, or even years, after the trauma.

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Signs and symptoms

If you have PTSD, you may often experience feelings of panic or extreme fear, resembling what was felt during the traumatic event. In PTSD there are three main types of difficulties:

  • Re-living the traumatic event — through unwanted and recurring memories and vivid nightmares. It can feel as though the events were happening again — this is referred to as 'flashbacks', or 'reliving' the event. There may be intense emotional or physical reactions, such as sweating, heart palpitations or panic, when reminded of the event.
  • Being overly alert or wound up — seeing danger everywhere and being 'tuned in' to threat. As a consequence, you may become jumpy, on edge, and feel constantly on guard. This can lead to being overly alert or watchful and to having problems concentrating, sleeping difficulties, irritability, and becoming easily startled, particularly by noises that remind you of the traumatic event.
  • Avoiding reminders of the event and feeling emotionally numb — deliberately avoiding activities, places, people, thoughts or feelings associated with the traumatic event. You may also lose interest in day-to-day activities, feel cut off and detached from friends and family, or feel flat and numb. This can lead to social isolation, a major risk factor for depression.
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Between five and ten percent of the general community are likely to develop PTSD at some point in their lives, compared to between 5 and 20 percent of veterans (depending on the nature of their work and deployment history). Among current serving members, about 8 percent have experienced PTSD in a given year, compared to 5 percent of the general community.

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There is no accepted benchmark for how long it takes to recover from PTSD. With effective treatment, approximately one third of those with chronic PTSD may recover (that is, no longer meet the diagnosis and have few residual symptoms) within a single course of treatment, for example, 3 to 6 months. Another third may require longer treatment (for example 6 to 12 months) and may be left with significant residual symptoms (even if they do not qualify for a diagnosis). The remaining third are unlikely to benefit significantly from treatment; in such cases, the goals become more modest and the focus is on maintenance and how to manage symptoms rather than "recovery" in a more traditional sense.

Access to supports and treatments

Early intervention and access to treatment are the first steps in the recovery process. If you have diagnosed PTSD, or any mental health condition, DVA may pay for your treatment, whatever the cause (it does not have to be related to service).

DVA will pay for your treatment of any mental health condition before, during, or after you make a compensation claim — or even if you never make a compensation claim. Call us on 1800 VETERAN (1800 838 372) or find out if you are eligible and how to apply.

Gold Health Card holders have access to DVA-funded treatment arrangements for all health conditions, including mental health. White Health Card holders have access to DVA-funded treatment arrangements for specific conditions, as well as any mental health condition under Non-Liability Health Care (NLHC) arrangements.

Treatment types

Effective treatments for PTSD are available, including psychological treatment and medication. Trauma-focused therapies are first-line treatments for veterans with PTSD. These recognise that the way we think and act affects the way we feel. Guided by a therapist or counsellor, these therapies provide:

  • ways to help digest and confront painful memories, thoughts and images so they don’t continue to cause distress
  • strategies to re-engage in activities
  • tools for relaxation to reduce anxiety and stress.
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Ways to get help

General practitioner

A General Practitioner (GP) is always a good place to start when managing PTSD, as he or she can make referrals for specialists, and support your efforts with medications if necessary.

Open Arms – Veterans and Families Counselling (formerly VVCS)

Open Arms specialises in supporting Defence members, ex-serving members, veterans and their families with individual- and group-based treatment options. Open Arms is available 24/7 on 1800 011 046.

Private mental health provider

To access a private mental health provider, your best place to start is with your GP, who can provide you with a referral to a psychiatrist, psychologist, mental health social worker, or mental health occupational therapist, according to your need. The following information may be of assistance:

Trauma Recovery Programs

DVA contracts mental health hospitals throughout Australia to provide Trauma Recovery Programs for PTSD. Former members of the Australian Defence Force (ADF) who are DVA clients are eligible. Current serving members of the ADF may also access the programs if they are referred by Defence. The programs provide highly specialised care for PTSD and its common comorbidities. These programs are required to meet DVA’s National Accreditation Standards for Trauma Recovery Programs — PTSD (2015).

The Trauma Recovery Standards are supported by the standards workbook that assists providers in determining if there is sufficient evidence is support and demonstrate that their systems and processes meet the accreditation requirements.

To find out more information about these programs you can contact the hospitals directly and speak to the PTSD program coordinators. See a list of the Trauma Recovery Programs.

PTSD Coach Australia (mobile application)

The PTSD Coach Australia mobile app can help you learn about and manage symptoms that commonly occur after trauma. Its features include:

  • Reliable information on PTSD and treatments that work.
  • Tools for screening and tracking your symptoms.
  • A scheduler that allows you to manage all your self-care, health appointments and activities.
  • Convenient, easy-to-use skills to help you handle stress symptoms.
  • Direct links to support and help.
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