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In our opinion: Progress with PTSD and veterans

FILE: Veteran Nick Lotz plays with his dog Freyja at his home in Salt Lake City Oct 8, 2014.  A growing segment of veterans are battling PTSD with the aid of close friends: canines who center them, respond to them and sometimes lead them home.
FILE: Veteran Nick Lotz plays with his dog Freyja at his home in Salt Lake City Oct 8, 2014. A growing segment of veterans are battling PTSD with the aid of close friends: canines who center them, respond to them and sometimes lead them home.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

We’ve come a long way in our ability to detect and treat conditions related to post-traumatic stress syndrome suffered by veterans of military combat. Once it often went unrecognized and untreated, but there are now robust investments in national and local programs to help afflicted veterans, along with advances in research into the causes and effects of the syndrome. In both arenas, programs in Utah have been exemplary and deserving of acclamation on the occasion of this Veterans Day.

Efforts begun in 2010 have been able to virtually end long-term homelessness as a persistent problem among veterans in Salt Lake City. By the most recent count, fewer than 20 chronically homeless people identified in the city have military backgrounds. Nationally, similar efforts have reduced the population of homeless veterans by 35 percent. Utah, also, is the home of the National Center for Veterans Studies, which has conducted landmark studies into ways to more effectively treat the psychological effects of exposure to combat.

The center, based at the University of Utah, has been recognized for breakthrough research that documented how certain types of short-term cognitive therapy can dramatically reduce rates of attempted suicide among veterans. The research, published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, found that soldiers receiving such therapy were 60 percent less likely to attempt suicide. Building on that research, the center is now engaged in a national pilot program to refine and expand therapeutic approaches to treating PTSD.

That program, profiled in a Deseret News in-depth report, takes a unique approach to administering what is known as cognitive processing therapy. It combines treatment with recreation and educational programs, many involving rugged outdoor activities. The program has been proved to shorten the term of therapy from three months to about two weeks.

Still, there is work to be done. Proper diagnosis of the condition is tricky. It may manifest itself temporarily or years after exposure to combat. There is no way to identify the exact number of those afflicted, but experts estimate that one-fifth of military personnel exposed to conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan have or will experience some form of PTSD. That would amount to tens of thousands of men and women who have now returned to civilian life.

They were sent into combat zones and returned with residual psychological maladies that can act to disrupt their lives in extreme ways. Many PTSD sufferers who failed to receive proper treatment have fallen into a downward spiral of destructive behavior. The rate of suicide has been tragically high. These are men and women who served with honor and willingly placed themselves in a situation of grave risk. They are owed every effort to properly help them navigate away from the ill effects of their military service. It is heartening to see how our community, in so many noteworthy ways, is working to honor that obligation.