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VA Gets $45 Million For PTSD

White River Junction To Spearhead Research

White River Junction — In the 1970s and 80s, Larry Greene struggled through many sleepless nights.

“It’s hard to get a good night’s sleep,” said Greene, 64, of West Lebanon. “You’ve got all of these, I like to call them ‘demons.’ ”

The “demons” that were keeping Greene awake at night were a product of the post-traumatic stress disorder he developed after seeing heavy combat during the Vietnam War. His disorder affected many aspects of the Army veteran’s life. He had trouble holding down a job. He was short-tempered. Sometimes, he’d walk into a supermarket and become so overwhelmed with anxiety that he’d leave the groceries at the checkout counter.

He was treated for his PTSD at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center with therapy and an extensive drug regimen — 28 pills a day during one period — but sensed that physicians had no clear idea of how to cure him.

“They didn’t know. They were doing a lot of experimental stuff,” Greene said. “I can’t remember all the things they did, but there was a lot of it.”

Much has changed in the years since Greene’s service in Vietnam, and even since his PTSD diagnosis in the 1980s, in how veterans are treated for mental trauma. But many critical questions remain unanswered. Some may soon be answered.

Last month, the federal government allotted $45 million to an effort led by PTSD researchers in White River Junction to investigate better ways of diagnosing and treating the disorder.

“This is very, very big,” said Matthew Friedman, executive director of the White River Junction-based National Center for PTSD, in a recent interview. “The amount of money is unprecedented.”

The money provided by the U.S. Department of Defense and Department of Veterans Affairs will go toward a five-year research project aimed at improving diagnosis, prevention and treatment. It will involve a consortium of military and civilian experts jointly led by the National Center for PTSD and The University of Texas Science Center.

As a disorder, PTSD has only been recognized for a few decades. The American Psychiatric Association added it to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 1980. Although much progress has been made, researchers still are trying to better understand whether early intervention would improve the outcome of care, whether combat-related PTSD can be cured and even whether there is a way to assess a person’s vulnerability to post-traumatic stress.

“Historically, PTSD has been considered to be a chronic, lifelong disorder that is difficult to treat, particularly in military combat veterans,” said Dr. Alan Peterson, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Texas who is helping lead the project, in a statement last month. “However, results of studies of PTSD in civilian populations demonstrate that a large percentage of patients have been able to be treated to the point of remission or recovery. Although the term ‘cured’ is rarely used in reference to PTSD, we believe it is possible.”

Psychiatric therapy and antidepressants are the two basic ways that PTSD is treated now, Friedman said. With this federally funded project, researchers will test new medications, study how to use technology to offer remote treatment and investigate the role primary care providers could play. Potentially there are ways of offering treatment online or via mobile phone applications, Friedman said.

Researchers are also exploring whether they can use a person’s biology to predict resilience to traumatic events, potentially to avoid putting vulnerable people in situations that could result in PTSD.

“We need to understand this better. We need to provide treatments for our troops if they develop it,” Friedman said. “But the more important question is can we prevent it?”

The resulting research could be used for more than just treating veterans, Friedman said. Roughly 7 percent of civilians will develop PTSD at some point, and the advances made in this project could help put millions of Americans on the path toward recovery.

“The information we learn with the military is very relevant to civilians,” Friedman said. “PTSD is PTSD, whether it affects Marines, Army personnel or someone who lost their house to a tornado or who is a victim of sexual assault.”

Greene hopes the research also can be used to help veterans’ families, who suffer through their own mental trauma while living with a loved one who has PTSD.

“When these (veterans) come back from serving and they’re suffering from it, their families will be the first ones to notice this,” said Greene, who was married twice and has two adult sons. “It’s very important that the families are made aware of (PTSD) and the families are working with the VA. ... They ought to be looking into how it’s affecting the children of veterans.”

Since he stopped working in 1990, Greene said he is more mentally stable than in the past. He still has periods when he has to go some place and be alone. The VA has made great improvement in how it treats veterans, Greene said, but he was skeptical that a cure for PTSD would ever be found.

“The only sure way for veterans not to have it is don’t have wars,” he said.

Chris Fleisher can be reached at 603-727-3229 or cfleisher@vnews.com.