THE BLOG

The Right Mental Health Care for Returning Vets: Neglecting Them This Time Will Be Dangerous

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A blog I wrote earlier this week was challenged by Martin Seligman, the founder of Positive Psychology, in a piece published Tuesday in the Huffington Post.

I appreciate Dr. Seligman's response. Dr. Seligman admits he provided the training I alleged he did to the CIA when it was developing torture techniques, but says he did not know it was going to be used for torture. I have consistently taken him at his word on that.

The part of my blog most relevant to Dr. Seligman's response, however, decried a $119 million program he has developed for the military to use Positive Psychology to treat the mental illnesses of war.

The issue of how we treat psychiatric impairments in the military is far too important to let rest without public debate and commentary from recognized experts in the treatment of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder. Remarkably that commentary from the real experts has not been listened to by the US military, and we are all at risk as a result.

War creates psychiatric impairments. The newest estimate is that thirty percent of our returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan will come home with post-traumatic stress disorder.
A psychiatrically impaired soldier can do a lot of damage and cause untold suffering.

Post-traumatic stress disorder is a highly painful mental disorder characterized by terrifying "flashbacks" in which the veterans feel they are back in the traumatic event itself. The mind, in a futile attempt to manage the unmanageable emotional trauma caused by the events, rapidly oscillates between numbing of all feelings on the one hand and hyperactivity with panic disorder, anxiety, and agitated depression on the other. Sleep and normal bodily functions become disrupted. The effect on one's family life is devastating. Suicide and homicide rates escalate.

While treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder has made many advances especially in the last two decades, it is not an easy problem to treat as any professional who has attempted it will attest.

If, as a nation, we do not provide appropriate care for returning veterans, terrorism will take yet another horrible toll on America by turning our own troops against us and against themselves.
Unfortunately, the military has just bought into a pop psychology "treatment plan" that will be devastating to returning troops suffering from PTSD.

The plan is based on Positive Psychology, promoted by psychologist Dr. Seligman. Dr. Seligman reports that over 700,000 people have been trained in positive psychology in programs called "Authentic Happiness." It restates same principles of Norman Vincent Peale's Power of Positive Thinking although this time they are garbed in psychological accoutrements.

As Dr. Seligman pointed out in his reply he contends there is an abundance of "empirical literature" that supports the use of positive psychology for treating post-traumatic stress disorder in the military. I disagree. There is none.

Any connection between the research Dr. Seligman is describing and post-traumatic stress disorder in combat veterans is extremely far-fetched. I believe this is a viewpoint that most experts in PTSD would share. One of the studies allegedly supportive of positive psychology was based on a study finding that for middle school students writing a letter to someone who had helped them made them feel better. The "effect" of this lasted for up to a month.

The reason the power of positive psychology's popularity ebbs and flows is that it evokes hopes like those implied in the phrase "authentic happiness." Unfortunately, these are ultimately dashed. We are led to believe that through will power and mind control we can create a long-lasting state of well being. While on a limited basis we may to able to help ourselves with such exercises, self-imposed mind control of this nature, is generally of limited value.

Most importantly, however, when we suggest applying positive psychology techniques to someone who is suffering from PTSD it is at best naive and, at worst, cruel.

What is important now is that a debate on this matter be held that includes the recognized experts in post-traumatic stress disorder before we subject our troops and our society to the ravages of PTSD, a disorder that will be a ticking time bomb when our troops return home.

Given the procedure by which this questionable program has evolved, the money at stake and the military's historical use of psychology for its own disguised ends described in my previous column, the debate should be monitored very carefully by the independent media. This is no time for military mischief.