A new study indicates that a talk therapy program may help people who have served in the U.S. military and have killed in combat and suffer from nightmares, hyper-vigilance to perceived threats and numbness to people and activities that once made them happy.
Published this week in the Journal of Clinical Psychology, the study by researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, or UCSF, involved 33 veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and enrolled them in one-on-one sessions for six to eight weeks with a licensed psychologist.
The veterans, according to first author Shira Maguen, associate professor in the UCSF Department of Psychiatry and mental health director of the San Francisco Veteran Affairs Health Care System Integrated Care Clinic, had either "endorsed killing" or were "responsible for the death of another in a war zone."
While earlier work by Maguen found veterans with killing experiences were twice as likely to think about suicide as those who had not killed, the current study assessed the mental health of 17 veterans who had completed the program, and compared the results with 16 counterparts who were waitlisted for the same treatment.
Components of the program included identifying the barriers to feeling better, such as numbing feelings with drugs or alcohol, living in an unhealthy environment or sabotaging personal relationships among the participants. A latter phase of the program involved self-forgiveness, which Maguen identified as "a key ingredient in healing."
"Self-forgiveness might involve volunteering, reconnecting with friends and family who were cut off, tutoring children, or even going back to the country where the killing occurred and trying to make amends there," the researcher was quoted by a news release from UCSF as explaining. She noted that many of the veterans struggled with "a belief that they were no longer lovable."
The participants were all male, with an average age of 61, and 14 of the 17 had served in Vietnam. While both groups suffered from PTSD and had killed in combat, the group that had completed the program experienced a 63 percent drop in depression symptoms, 43 percent improvement in anxiety and a 37 percent dip in general psychiatric symptoms.
PTSD is characterized by reliving a terrifying event, avoiding situations that prompt memories of that event, a surge in negative feelings and beliefs, and being hyper-aware of potential dangers.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs says that an estimated 30 percent of Vietnam veterans have had PTSD in their lifetime, versus 12 percent of those serving in the Gulf War, and between 11 and 20 percent of those in Iraq and Afghanistan.