It’s time to cut through the uncertainty and fear that surround PTSD so that the Church can respond with help and hope.
by EVAN OWENS
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. There is often a stigma associated with the term “PTSD.” It can raise feelings of uncertainty and perhaps even fear. It is closely tied to instability, rage, depression, and suicide. It is widely seen as an issue that is best for the so-called “experts” to deal with. After all, no one wants to risk saying the wrong thing and pushing someone over the edge, so you might figure it’s best to leave it to medical professionals.
If you’re in a position of leadership at your church, you will (and should) encounter men and women struggling with PTSD. Even if you don’t work directly with combat veterans, you will undoubtedly find yourselves sitting across from someone who has experienced a traumatic event and is suffering from what the medical community calls Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. This disorder can lead a person to present symptoms including agitation, isolation, sleeplessness, anxiety, depression, and in some cases, flashbacks to their trauma.
At REBOOT, we’ve seen firsthand how trauma affects people of all walks of life. Though our trauma healing course is designed for combat veterans, the struggles of PTSD are not exclusive to service members. And we believe the Church has an incredible opportunity to be a refuge and a chief source of healing for anyone suffering from the aftereffects of trauma.
Here are 4 truths that church leaders should know about PTSD.
A diagnosis of PTSD is given by medical professionals, but the best treatment is not just physical and mental, it’s also spiritual.
Trauma is defined by Webster’s Dictionary as “a deeply distressing or disturbing experience.” Talk of mental health surrounds us. We see it on TV, in the newspaper, and on social media. By 2018, the mental health care industry will have crested $148 billion, and the number continues to grow year after year. 1
According to the Anxiety Center, nearly one-third of the North American population is experiencing anxiety un-wellness issues. Nearly 43% of the American population takes mood-altering drugs daily. 2
Needless to say, our nation is reaching a breaking point when it comes to our mental health. We aren’t okay. We aren’t well.
If you were to ask most mental healthcare professionals, they would tell you that spiritual health is a key component of wellness. Yet, in many churches, Christian leaders would say they feel unequipped to address the mental and emotional struggles those with PTSD are facing. It is easier, and feels safer, to simply refer them to an outside expert.
However, that expert is not going to speak to the spiritual components of their struggles but rather will likely deflect the spiritual questions back to the church. So, it is vital that church leaders feel prepared and equipped to handle these topics.
Of course, this is not to suggest that mental healthcare is ineffective or un-needed. Also, in no way does it mean that church leaders should be considered capable of counseling at the level of a trained therapist.
Think of it like this… We can’t all be heart surgeons, but we can all know basic CPR.
That’s where we, as everyday people, can improve. Church leaders should at minimum learn the basics of dealing with the traumatized. We’ll look at that more in a moment.
As more and more people find themselves struggling with mental health, the church has a tremendous opportunity to speak into these situations and help facilitate building a community of healing around the hurting.
Trauma catalyzes a spiritual discussion.
When someone survives a traumatizing experience, a flood of questions may rush to that person’s mind.
Why did this happen? How could God let this happen?
Why did I live and they die?
What would have happened to me after I died? Is there a Heaven or Hell?
How could that person hurt me like that? How can I ever forgive that person?
This changes everything and my priorities are totally different now. I need to reprioritize my faith.
Is God truly good? I have been living a great Christian life and yet this happened to me? Why?
Many of these questions remain dormant until something forces them to be addressed, and they can’t be fully processed within one’s own mind. A traumatized person will reach out to others for thoughts about these questions. That person may reach out to you.
Trauma may open the door to discussions of deep spiritual issues of faith, belief, purpose, identity, guilt, and forgiveness. Church leaders shouldn’t be afraid to tackle these questions with theological answers and with a measure of emotional intelligence in order to address the issues compassionately and gently to a person struggling with PTSD.
Anticipate a process, not a quick fix.
Since trauma wounds the soul, true healing typically doesn’t come quickly. Furthermore, it necessitates a transformation in life. Once someone has experienced a traumatic event, that person will be forever changed. It takes time to grow into their modified identity. Healing from PTSD and trauma is all about progress, not perfection.
If you are working with veterans, keep in mind that variations in medication and care through the VA can be additional factors to consider in the healing process. It can take months and sometimes years for doctors to find the right balance and blend of medications to provide a better quality of physical and mental health. This can be a frustrating process and will certainly require much patience.
Watch the coping mechanisms and behaviors the person is developing and coach them in those areas. Make those life skills the focus area of your energy rather than the actual symptomatic wellness. In other words, leave the symptom management to the medical community while you focus on the character and heart of the person.
Don’t allow poor circumstances to be an excuse for poor character.
Learning Trauma CPR will equip you to be a PTSD “first responder.”
We’ll dig further into the topic of Trauma CPR in a future article, but for now, here is an simple blueprint for aiding a PTSD sufferer who has turned to you for help.
1st – Safety
The first thing to do is ensure a person’s safety. While most people who suffer trauma do not become suicidal or homicidal, some do. Ensure a person’s immediate physical safety before moving on to other topics. A few simple questions to ask are:
“Are you with someone now or are you alone?
“Are you able to promise me you won’t hurt yourself or others?”
“Do you feel safe with your thoughts and environment right now?”
2nd – Affirmation
Once the safety of the situation has been established, the next step of Trauma CPR is affirmation. When it comes to coping, we can all tend to be too hard on ourselves. This is especially so when a person has experienced a traumatic event and may be dealing with issues of self esteem. So, it is important to affirm a person’s efforts toward restoration up to this point. Doing the hard work of healing after trauma is challenging and scary. Having someone tell you that you are doing a good job and to keep working can be the difference between continuing the fight or giving up.
3rd – Community
After affirming a person’s own self worth, it’s time to affirm their worth to others as part of a larger community. Often, one of the earliest signs of PTSD is isolation. Trauma can lead people to pull back from the very friends, family, and trusted confidantes who seek to build up and support them. That’s why it’s important for you to be willing to act as a “bridge person,” someone who is willing to lay down your life to help others cross over the valleys they are facing. Dr. Len Matheson, an expert in the space of brain trauma, explains that the biggest factor in healing after trauma is not medication or therapy but rather engaging in an authentic and positive community. 3 So, helping a traumatized person get plugged in to a community is vital.
4th – Character
Many times, those struggling with PTSD try to deal with their pain by using “substitute painkillers.” These substitutes may include alcohol, pornography, sex, violence, video games, or illegal drugs – activities that numb the mind or bring temporary physical pleasure or relief. Their response to trauma may trigger a series of poor choices. You can fight back against this downward spiral by helping them develop or rediscover the characteristics that will lead them on a path to be more like Jesus.
As the Jewish prisoner of Auschwitz said to his friend, “Where is God?,” his friend looked at the sadistic Nazi guards and asked, “Where is man?” 4
The time is now for the Church to establish itself as a knowledgable and practical source of help and hope to those who are suffering from PTSD. Church leaders, it starts with you.
EVAN OWENS is the Executive Director and co-founder of REBOOT Recovery and co-author of REBOOT Combat Recovery and REBOOT First Responders.
4 – Guinness, Os. Unspeakable: Facing up to Evil in an Age of Genocide and Terror. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2005. Print.