Monday, April 9, 2007

USC Psychology Department: More Fieldwork Opportunities Needed

As a proud first generation college student in one of the most renowned institutions in the world, the University of the Southern California, I am keenly aware of the fact that I have much for which to be grateful. In addition to a top-notch education, valuable experiences, and cherished memories, USC has provided me with an opportunity to actively pursue my dream of one day working in and contributing to the field of psychology. That is why I consider myself a true believer in the university’s central mission, which continues to be “the development of human beings and society as a whole through the cultivation and enrichment of the human mind and spirit.” In these precarious times of technology-driven growth of information and communication, globalization, growing competition, and calls for accountability, one reason for USC’s unceasing success in her unwavering loyalty to the aforementioned core values is the acute recognition of this volatile environment. The USC 2004 strategic plan states, “We must acknowledge the fact that conditions in the world are changing ever more rapidly. Thus, more flexible strategies must be developed which will enable USC to accelerate its progress under evolving external circumstances.” One clever method of developing these new strategies includes the College Dean’s Prize, which involves the input of USC students in the form of proposals that seek to enrich academic life and educational experience at the university. Participants are encouraged to “think seriously about learning, be creative and daring, and inspirational.” In this week's post, I have decided to offer my own proposal that would help improve the quality of undergraduate education in my unit, the Department of Psychology.

As much as I have learned from lectures, books, labs, discussions, and other instructional methods, I feel my education was lacking in one respect, the hands-on experience. I always believed strongly that the best way for an individual learn about something is to experience it first hand. As a leading university, USC offers many possibilities for undergraduate students to directly engage the community through research and outreach programs but does not provide undergraduates with as many opportunities to participate in actual fieldwork relevant to their specific area. Currently these opportunities mostly exist for the graduate students. This should be changed in order to accommodate the willing and capable undergraduates a who would like a chance to test themselves in an authentic setting. In order to better prepare all students for the real world, I believe USC’s Department of Psychology would greatly benefit from an expansion of psychology-oriented fieldwork opportunities that are currently available predominately to graduate students. This would make it possible for more students to gain valuable knowledge from a broad range of circumstances, in a more meaningful manner. (USC Bovard Auditorium is pictured above)

As much as it pains me to say it, UCLA has already implemented programs that give its undergraduates access to real world settings. UCLA offers four courses in total, in psychology and cognitive science, which allow interested students to take part in a large variety of different fieldwork opportunities. Students can select from a multitude of various mental health organizations, each with their own set of requirements and duties, ranging from children hospitals, peer help lines, research labs, counseling centers, family services, community housing groups, retirement homes, and even with USC’s Information Sciences Institute. Participants are required to work a minimum of six hours per week and attend mandatory weekly seminars. Each class is worth four units of upper division course credit for the experience.

Expanding fieldwork opportunities for undergraduates with the possibility of course credit is a feasible goal with many benefits. Not only would it be beneficial for the students and the reputation of the university, it would undoubtedly serve the communities involved. As USC’s mission statement notes, “In our surrounding neighborhoods and around the globe, USC provides public leadership and public service in such diverse fields as health care, economic development, social welfare, scientific research, public policy and the arts.” If USC is to continue to thriving in these fiercely competitive times, it must always remain vigilant to the needs of those it serves.

Monday, April 2, 2007

USC Honorary Degree: Dr. David Drew Pinsky

May is just around the corner and that means that for most universities, including my institution, the University of Southern California (USC), spring commencement will soon be under way. Traditionally, at every graduation ceremony at USC, at least one outstanding nominee is awarded an honorary degree and is entrusted to deliver the commencement speech to the graduating class. According to the USC Honorary Degree criteria, these degrees are awarded “to honor individuals who have distinguished themselves through extraordinary achievements in scholarship, the professions, or other creative activities, whether or not they are widely known by the general public.” The selection of such an individual worthy of this prestigious accolade can not be taken lightly. As James Freedman, president emeritus of the University of Iowa and Dartmouth College, noted: “In bestowing an honorary degree, of which there is a long tradition in American higher education, a university makes an explicit statement to its students and the world about the qualities of character and attainment it admires most.” In this week’s post, I have decided to recognize an individual who has truly distinguished himself in the field of Psychology and, in doing so, is deserving of such an honorary degree of Doctor of Science.

As an alumnus of the University of Southern California, Dr. David Drew Pinsky (pictured below), better known as “Dr. Drew”, has already demonstrated that he possesses the qualities inscribed in our beloved mascot, Tommy Trojan (pictured to the left): faithful, scholarly, skillful, courageous, and ambitious. All kidding aside, Dr. Drew truly is an incredible person. He continues to have a remarkable career as an American board-certified physician and Addiction Medicine specialist, a successful author, a professor at the Keck School of Medicine, a medical magazine editor, a notable television personality, and film actor. However, what Dr. Drew is most famous for is his nationally syndicated radio talk show, Loveline, which can be heard locally in Los Angeles, Sunday thru Thursday from 10:00 pm to 12:00 am on KROQ 106.7 FM. What started out as a once-a-week segment in 1983 while Dr. Drew was still only a fourth-year medical student at USC, has turned into a highly influential program heard in over seventy markets, aimed at helping people, primarily youths and young adults, with relationship, sexuality, abuse, and drug addiction problems. This is where Dr. Drew shines the most. As a practicing internist and addictionologist with training in psychology, Dr. Drew's answers to call-in questions offer sound medical credibility along with compassionate, understanding, and knowledgeable guidance. Some might say that over the years Dr. Drew has grown a bit cynical towards today’s youth, but perhaps they simply have not listened to the show long enough to understand that even at times when he may become frustrated with some of the more scandalous callers, his genuine passion and devotion to help others is always present.

With over twenty-seven years of experience in the fields of medicine and psychology, three successful books, countless interviews, and numerous television and movie appearances Dr. Drew is truly a voice for our generation. One of his greatest traits is his ability to relate to today’s youth whether it is in identifying the serious issues affecting them today or simply by being tuned in to all of the latest trends and current humor in contemporary pop culture. Both are powerful tools he uses to connect with young people that would prove to be very valuable assets in his commencement speech. He certainly would impart the graduating class with useful knowledge in how to succeed in life in a realistic yet approachable manner. With all of his qualifications, attributes, accomplishments, knowledge, and popularity, we should all, as James Freedman said, “celebrate distinguished and sublime achievement” by honoring this fellow Trojan, Dr. David Drew Pinsky.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

This I Believe: Why Psychology is Important to Me

Over the weekend I came across a website entitled This I Believe, a national media project that engages people in writing, sharing, and discussing the core values and beliefs that guide them in their daily lives, which inspired me to do something a bit different in this week’s post. I have decided to share a personal account that heavily influenced my core values and ultimately impacted the decision to devote my life to the discipline of psychology.

A few weeks after my fourteenth birthday, I awoke to an intense sensation of pain in the right side of my abdominal region. That night I was rushed to the emergency room after I could no longer withstand the enduring agonizing pain. The doctors performed various tests and eventually determined that I had an uncommon form of hepatitis known as autoimmune hepatitis or AIH. AIH is a disease that can be described as the body “rejecting” its own liver. For unknown reasons, the immune system attacks healthy cells, which leads to the inflammation and scarring of the liver, which if left untreated results in cirrhosis, liver failure, and eventually death. As in all autoimmune diseases, the treatment is to suppress the immune system with the use of immunosuppressant drugs, to minimize the damage and allow for healing in the afflicted organ. Unfortunately for me, that is when things got even worse.

The lesser side effects of the drugs, such as lethargy, headaches, weight gain and complete hair loss, were hard on me as I tried to adjust to the new social pressures of high school, but I managed, with the support of family and friends. However, what was not expected was the complete eradication of my immune system. Without that to protect me from illness, I became gravely ill and was transported to UCLA Medical Center (pictured to the right). Over the next four months I would endure fevers as high as one hundred and six degrees, a spread of infection, major bleeding, excruciating pain, and three life-threatening surgeries. By the time I was released from the hospital, I was physically and emotionally numb from all of the suffering. As one horrific ordeal ended, another began. Confronted with my own mortality at such a young age, I became severely depressed and began to withdraw from friends and family. It was nearly impossible for me to get my life, goals, and priorities back in order and things only appeared to worsen. The physical scars that still cover much of my body were nothing compared to the emotional ones. My parents soon realized that they alone could not provide me with the adequate help I needed.

When my parents first approached me about seeing a psychologist I was extremely hesitant. I believed I could handle my problems by myself. Deep down, however, I knew I could not. I eventually agreed to meet with psychologist because I desired the guidance necessary to get my life back in order again. I would have never thought that simple decision would become one of the most significant and most influential decisions of my life. Over the next few months, I had my own personal forum in which I could discuss things that were of real significance to me. With the assistance of a mental health professional I quickly returned to my old self again. This is how my passion for psychology was instilled. I hope to one day be in that position to help others in the same way I was helped.

Often times we can be distracted with how psychology is portrayed in our culture through movies, television, soundbites and politics, but ultimately I believe that the fundamental goal of psychology is to help people achieve and maintain a strong and healthy state of mental wellbeing. As a physician treats physical wounds, a psychologist treats mental distress. In order to live a complete life, we need both a healthy body and a healthy mind.

Monday, March 5, 2007

Narcissism: Studies Claim it is a Problem for Generation Y

Have you ever watched an episode of Fox’s American Idol and wondered to yourself, “Is he serious!?” You know who I am referring to; the guy who steps on to the stage, opens his mouth, and completely butchers a perfectly good Sinatra song with his voice that sounds remarkably like the shrieks a dying hyena. What would make someone with such an obvious deficit in singing ability, think that they could honestly be America’s next big star? Well, according to Jean Twenge (seen below), a professor of San Diego State University and the author of Generation Me (seen to the left), the reason can be attributed to a large increase in the rate of narcissism in today’s youth, that was a direct result of being brought up in an environment, known as the "self-esteem movement" that emerged in the 1980s, in which children were constantly being told that they were “special” and that they should always “believe in themselves.” Now, according to the analysis examined by Twenge and colleagues, of the responses of 16,475 college students across the United States who filled out the Narcissistic Personality Inventory between 1982 and 2006, this generation of youths is facing a plethora of problems. Twenge noted that people high in narcissism lack empathy for others, are aggressive when insulted, seek public glory and favor self-enhancement over helping others look good. Narcissists are also more likely to be materialistic and to seek attention and fame. "Narcissism feels good and might be useful for meeting new people or auditioning on American Idol," said study co-author W. Keith Campbell, University of Georgia psychology professor and author of When You Love a Man Who Loves Himself. "Unfortunately, narcissism can also have very negative consequences for society, including the breakdown of close relationships with others."

As a current member of this “narcissistic” generation, I felt my insight could be of some worth. Personally, I strongly disagree with Professor Twenge’s argument. In my own experience I have not encountered the narcissism epidemic she describes. Most of the individuals that I know of this current generation are rational and objective young adults who are aware of their abilities and limitations. Obviously individuals vary, but collectively I see no obvious difference in narcissism from one generation to another. And to be honest, I am a bit suspect of any study not being published in a scientific journal subjected to peer review. Instead Professor Twenge publishes her findings in a press release and her blog, coincidently just in time to help promote the launch of her new book. As expected the media quickly jumps on the story and before you know it she is on the Today Show, Tucker Carlson, and various local radio shows plugging her new book. Does any of this necessarily refute her theory? Of course not, but it is something that should be kept in mind when considering her study and motives.

Now as far as examining more concrete facts, Professor Twenge states, “These findings make me very, very worried. I’m concerned we are heading to a society where people are going to treat each other badly, either on the street or in relationships.” First, as I mentioned earlier, Twenge’s findings are based upon a very specific group of the population; college freshmen. Every scientific researcher knows that in order to get an accurate representation of a population, one must collect data from a large random sample otherwise you are left with a sample that possesses some common variable that could be misleading. To make such extreme assumptions about the general population of youths of today based upon the sample provided in Twenge’s study would be erroneous. Second, the facts about today’s youth simply do not support Professor Twenge’s theory. Things viewed as obvious indexes to narcissism, such as violent crime, pregnancy, abortion, and drug abuse rates have all significantly dropped statistically in young people since the 1980s. Many surveys also indicate that today’s youth are very close to their parents and family. Record numbers claim they "share their parent’s values" or "have no problem with any family member." Increasingly many say they want to live near their parents later in life. This would seem very unlikely if parents and family members were left to deal with unruly, selfish, narcissistic teenagers.

Frankly, with all the misleading broad assumptions, I feel that Professor Jean Twenge ought to change the title of her book from Generation Me to Generalize Me.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Virtual Reality: Can it Aid in the Fight Against PTSD?

In one of my previous posts, I discussed the serious issue of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and the detrimental effects it has on American troops who had served in Iraq. Now, thanks to technology and to research lead by Dr. Albert “Skip” Rizzo (pictured to the left) of the University of Southern California, a new method of treatment may make it possible for soldiers, who were exposed to traumatic episodes, to overcome the terrible affections of this dreadful disease. This advanced form of “exposure therapy” involves the use of virtual reality, in a safe and controlled setting, to simulate intense, harsh, lifelike events that a soldier must repeatedly be exposed to in order to confront and ultimately gain control over the overwhelming fears and anguish associated with any particular traumatic event. Even though the trials on this distinct therapy are in its infancy, the results look promising so, naturally, with all the excitement surrounding this brand new form of treatment, I decided, once more, to seek out other reputable blogs to engage in the dialogue. My first comment can be found here at Mind Hacks, an excellent, informative, and popular blog dedicated to the fields of Psychology and Neuroscience. My second post can be found here at A Soldier’s Mind, a passionate blog committed to the men and women in the armed forces serving in Iraq. Both comments can also be seen below:

What an exceptional idea to treat PTSD. However, I am bit surprised it had not been thought of sooner, considering that we have had much of the technology for years and, as you already mentioned, it is unequivocally safer than exposure to any form, including the lowest level, of combat conditions. One of the reasons I believe that this treatment may be more beneficial than traditional imaginative therapy to a soldier suffering from PTSD, is due to the extensive amount of detail involved in creating this “Virtual Iraq.” In case your readers didn’t know, the realism factor of this program is truly astounding. It includes a fully rendered three-dimensional environment with impressive graphics (pictured below) and sound; powerful subwoofers are placed under the soldier’s chair to create movements and vibrations (pictured to the right); and a system allows for odors to be dispersed which include: gunpowder, cordite, burning rubber, burning smoke, diesel fuel, Iraqi spices, barbecued lamb and body odor. As you can probably tell, I am very excited about the possibilities of this new treatment. Hopefully this technology can help alleviate the distress of our affected soldiers.

Thank you for shedding light on what is becoming Iraq’s silent wound: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. This is a very serious issue and needs to be better understood because unfortunately, more and more American troops are coming home from Iraq having experienced severely traumatic events and are at risk for developing PTSD. As someone who has witnessed, first hand, what PTSD can do to an individual, I am greatly pleased to see a push towards treating this terrible illness. The virtual reality concept is fascinating because the idea is to expose patients to scenarios that trigger their PTSD and work through them with the goal of lessoning the negative side effects. After reading your post on the workings of this program, and of some the preliminary findings, I must say that I am very hopeful about the tremendous possibilities that this new form of exposure therapy may have on soldiers suffering from PTSD.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Teenage Suicide Rates: What is Causing it to Increase?

Over the past decade in the United States youth suicide rates have steadily been declining. Most of this is credited to increased education; more outreach programs, better support systems, as well as more individuals accessing treatments, including prescription drugs, for psychological problems like depression. However, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention's Annual Summary of Vital Statistics published last month, the suicide rates sharply rose more than eighteen percent in youths from the ages of one to nineteen years old: from 2.2 per 100,000 in 2003, to 2.6 per 100,000 in 2004, and from 1,737 total suicide deaths in 2003 to 1,985 in 2004. Specifically in those youths from the ages of fifteen to nineteen, the figures reflected more than a twelve percent increase in suicide, from 7.3 per 100,000 in 2003 to 8.2 per 100,000 in 2004. Curiously the rise coincided with the inception of the Food and Drug Administration’s mandated heightened warnings, on the labels of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs, a particular kind of antidepressant medication that includes Prozac, Paxil and Zoloft. These “black box” warnings, as they are better known, were added in March 2004 over growing concerns that the drugs led to an increase in suicidal thinking in patients. The prescribing of these medications to children subsequently dropped by over twenty percent.

Since it is well documented that black box warnings can indeed deter some patients from taking certain medication, some mental health professionals are openly criticizing the FDA’s decision to place them on SSRIs. "Patients will be frightened off appropriate treatment," stated Dr. Alex Vuckovic, medical director of The Pavilion at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts. "It's already happening to child psychiatrists and their patients. These drugs save lives—end of story, no ambiguity." The nonprofit group Mental Health America has also called for a further look into the FDA's decision to strengthen warnings on SSRIs. "As a result of the agency's activities, dramatic decreases in the use of SSRIs in the adolescent population were noted," said David Shern, president of Mental Health America in a statement issued on February 5th. "Other research has indicated a general relationship between the use of SSRIs and decreasing suicide rates in the general population. We must therefore wonder if the FDA's actions and the subsequent decrease in access to these antidepressants have caused an increase in youth suicide." He added, “This is a disturbing reversal of progress.”

Although there does appear to be a correlative relationship between an increase in youth suicide rates and the reduction of SSRI prescriptions, due to black box warnings, I find it a bit impulsive and irresponsible on the part of critics who hastily point the finger of blame at the FDA. I wholeheartedly agree that the trend is alarming and quite unsettling; however the problem with examining such an immense subject like national youth suicide rates and the explanations of any increase is that it is extremely complicated and difficult, since there are almost an infinite amount of unknown variables that may have an influence on behavior. How can we be sure which one is responsible? Without any solid empirical study examining causative factors in this increase, one simply cannot make factually-based claims, as did Dr. Charles Nemeroff, chairman of the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Emory University School of Medicine, who bluntly said “I have no doubt that there is such a relationship.” That is a bold and unsupported statement that many other scientists completely disagree with. It would be unwise to forget one of the most fundamental principles of good scientific research: correlation is not causation. We must get to the bottom of this tragedy but we can not be so quick as to rush to any conclusion that may possibly alter and have lingering effects on public policy, research and/or treatment decisions, without sufficient data. In the meanwhile we must continue to support existing programs and further educate ourselves and our children about the seriousness of this issue and remain ever so vigilant to any potential problems that may arise and act upon them as soon as possible.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Diagnosis and Treatment for Young Children: How Accurate and Safe are They?

Over the weekend I came across a truly heartbreaking story about a child named Rebecca Riley. Rebecca, pictured to the left, was only two and a half years old when she was diagnosed with both attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and bipolar disorder. She was then put on the powerful drug, Clonidine, by her psychiatrist, Dr. Kayoko Kifuji. But instead of helping her, the drug slowly destroyed her internal organs, filled her lungs with fluid, and she eventually died. Now her parents, pictured below, are being charged with first-degree murder. Prosecutors say they killed their daughter by regularly giving her drug overdoses, ostensibly to keep her calm and to get her to sleep. As disturbing as the actions of the parents are, I was also equally appalled by the diagnosis and treatment recommended by this psychiatrist. What could have possibly prompted her to diagnose such a young child with such a severe mental disorder without sufficient existing medical research on the matter? How common is this practice? This week, I decided to join the dialogue, regarding this controversial issue, by seeking out reputable blogs on the subject and expressing my opinion.

These are some of the comments I made:

(The Trouble With Spikol)

What a tragic story. Obviously, whether negligent or intentional, these deplorable, unstable, so-called parents are to blame for the death of this innocent child. I am deeply disturbed by their reckless and reprehensible behavior. However, I am almost as equally disturbed with the psychiatrist’s astonishing diagnosis of not just one, but two serious mental disorders in reference to child of less than two and half years of age! To arrive at such a diagnosis, for such an early and crucial period of development, with very limited scientific data known, accompanied with the potential risks of extremely powerful psychotropic drugs, is simply irresponsible and dangerous. Clearly there needs to be much more oversight in the cases of these very young children because this is merely another example in what is becoming an alarming trend of younger and younger children being treated for mental disorders with these highly potent and potentially harmful drugs.

(Furious Seasons)

I do not understand how such a tragedy was allowed to take place. Clearly the parents in this story are most culpable for the death of this innocent child, but the blame also partially rests on the presumptuous deeds of this negligent psychiatrist. Rebecca Riley was only two and a half years old when she was diagnosed with such a serious adult mental disorder. That diagnosis was completely irresponsible, in fact I believe it was borderline unethical because there is simply not enough empirical research on how to properly, if possible, diagnose such young children, let alone on how to decide on how much potentially dangerous psychotropic medication they should be on. There is currently a disturbing trend taking place of many children under the age of six being treated in this same exact manner. This is plainly wrong. How many more tragic stories will it take before more oversight and clearer guidelines, for the treatment of our children, are implemented?

Monday, February 5, 2007

The Mentally Disabled: Why those Watching Over them Ought to be Watched

There is a new disturbing realization emerging from our mental health care facilities regarding the safety of our nation's mentally ill and handicapped. They are among society's most vulnerable individuals and many of the people entrusted to watch over them are not doing their jobs. Many of the mentally disabled have been subjected to extreme cases of neglect as well as to unimaginable acts of abuse at the hands of their own caregivers. Sadly, most of these helpless individuals can not fend for themselves nor can they seek out the proper help needed because of severely limited mental capabilities. Unfortunately, many of these victims have no choice but to suffer in silence. This is all very shocking news but what is even more alarming is that this problem is much more rampant than had originally been thought.

Last week, police arrested Patrick Solis, 22, on suspicion of false imprisonment and dependant abuse while working as a caregiver at Jossen Vocational Academy in Anaheim. Solis was employed at the facility for at least five months before a cellular phone surfaced that contained videos police said reveal him beating and taunting two innocent developmentally disabled men. "They're like little children who can't protect themselves," Anaheim police Detective Cherie Hill said. “The men seen slapped and taunted in the video are both 38 but have the mental capacity of two-year-olds, and the suspect on the video targeted the most vulnerable of victims: two men who can barely talk. One only knows how to say 'Mama' and the sign language sign for bathroom.” This grainy cell phone picture of the incident, located above, shows the helpless men cowering, frightened, whimpering and crying. At one point, someone is heard clapping. Another is slapped and beckoned to come closer, only to be slapped again. The full video can be seen here. "What else happened that wasn't taped?" Anaheim police Sergeant Rick Martinez asked. "Nobody would've ever known had it not been for that video."

In another incident, Monique Marie Tetter, 25, pictured to the right, a caretaker working for The Department for Mental Health and Mental Retardation in Kentucky, pleaded not guilty last week for allegedly leaving Michelle Miller, a severely mentally disabled woman under her care, alone for at least ninety minutes. Police were called to an apartment on Thursday afternoon after a building employee spraying for insects found Miller, lying inside the door of Tetter's living room with a plastic bag over her head. "Thank God for that maintenance man," Roy Miller, the father of Michelle Miller, said. "You cannot leave her alone."

Just last May, in a highly publicized report from the Justice Department, dozens of group homes and caregivers from the Washington D.C. area were investigated for their roles in abuse and neglect of physically and mentally disabled residents, which resulted in fourteen "preventable and questionable" deaths since January 2003. Many of the residents were starved to death including Matthew 43, and Emily 60, who at the time of their deaths weighed less than fifty pounds. Other deaths resulted from intentional scalding with hot water, anemia, gangrene of the stomach, organ failure, and septic shock due to untreated illnesses. Many of the surviving mentally disabled residents of the group homes were beaten, berated, sexually accosted, neglected or targeted for theft, Justice lawyers noted. "These are human beings, just like anybody else, who just need a little extra attention and help from the District of Columbia," said council member Adrian M. Fenty, who heads the council's Committee on Human Services and has been working on the issue. "And they didn't get it. And it cost them their lives."

As a society we have a moral obligation to protect those who are less capable and to punish the culpable. Currently, the lack of adequate oversight, faulty state-licensed care facility policies, unqualified staff, lenient laws, and poor pay for our aides are causing us to fail in that obligation. The majority of the caregivers in the U.S. today are admirable professionals who work very diligently to care for the nation's mentally disabled. However, many are not quite as noble, such as Patrick Solis, pictured to the left. Thus it falls upon the rest of us to demand reform of the laws that govern many of the failing policies that permit these atrocities. For those who have died, and for those who still need our help, we must do better.

In order to report cases of abuse please contact the local law enforcement agencies or the California District Attorney's Association or the Office of the Attorney General.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder: A Look at how it is Affecting American Troops

"They were shredded," Pepper, seen to the left, says of the devastating ambush he can't get out of his mind. "It's just a blood bath."

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, also known as PTSD, is a chronic anxiety disorder in which an extremely stressful or traumatic event brings in it’s aftermath a variety of concurrent symptoms including: intrusive vivid flashbacks of the traumatic events, nightmares, disturbed sleep, hyper-vigilance, avoidance, emotional detachment from the outside world, explosive anger, severe anxiety, clinical depression, and if left untreated, suicide.

U.S. Army Specialist Adam Pepper is one of the thousands of soldiers today affected with PTSD. In fact according to the New England Journal of Medicine, at least one in six U.S. soldiers today is troubled by severe anxiety or PTSD. Even more worrisome is the fact those figures are from troops with only one deployment to Iraq. According to the first survey from the U.S. Army, that looked at how multiple war-zone rotations affect soldiers’ mental health, U.S. soldiers serving multiple deployments to Iraq are 50% more likely to suffer from acute combat stress, raising their risk of post-traumatic stress disorder.

One of the main reasons for the increase in the amount of PTSD cases in Iraq is that soldiers are facing an increase in the amount of traumatic events. According to the U.S. Army’s third survey on mental health, 76% of soldiers surveyed said that they personally knew someone who had been seriously injured or killed, and 55% experienced an explosion of a roadside bomb or booby trap nearby.

For Spec. Pepper the statistics were all too real. In Iraq he was shot at countless times. He was mortared on a daily basis. And on one fateful day, five of his friends, fellow soldiers in his convey, were killed only a few vehicles away from him. Pepper admits to not even being able to register what had just happened the first few seconds after the explosion ended the lives of his comrades. "People get emotional. These are your friends." Pepper said.

What makes this whole story even more heartbreaking is the fact that many of the soldiers affected with PTSD suffer in silence because of the stigma attached to mental disorder and from the fear that seeking help could jeopardize their career. Research done by the U.S. Army shows that less than 40% of soldiers affected with a mental disorder seek help, even though the Army has significantly increased the number of mental health professionals in Iraq and Afghanistan. To make matters worse, many of the soldiers that actually sought professional care are not receiving adequate help. Marine Sgt. William C. Wold, a 23-year-old Iraq vet, died on Nov. 10, 2006 due to inadequate help with PTSD, according to his parents, John and Sandra Wold. His death remains under investigation. Earlier this month Sandra Wold said "We are angrier than ever." She believes her son died by accident due to improper medication and counseling. Upon returning from Iraq, Sgt. William Wold’s personality was noticeably different to his family. He was plagued with nightmares which ultimately lead to a drug addiction. No one helped him, in fact, according to Sandra Wold, "They made him worse."

With the war in Iraq escalating in violence, a call from the President to increase troop presence by 22,000, and no measures from Congress to implement the drastic changes needed in the policies that affect the mental health of our American soldiers, there appears to be no foreseeable resolution to this crisis. Surely our troops deserve better and thus it falls upon the public to be the catalyst for change and the first step is to get informed about these mental disorders.

For U.S. Army Specialist Adam Pepper many things will never be the same. He will spend many months, possibly years, trying to overcome many of the difficult obstacles of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. However, despite his own internal struggles, he says he doesn't regret his decision to serve his country.