Strong bonds — making connections

Are You A Recent Veteran Seeking Help With Your Relationship?

NYCEFT volunteer member therapists are providing free, unlimited and confidential Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy – (EFT) for military service members who served in Iraq or Afghanistan and their loved ones.  

We were recently mentioned on CNN!

Sue Johnson: To Help Returning Soldiers, Support Their Families

Once again, stories of soldiers who come safely home to Canada, only to be destroyed by their emotional wounds, are in the news. Now we have specific numbers. At least 59 Canadian Forces members took their own lives after returning from Afghanistan.

Sheila Fynes holds the medals of her son, Cpl. Stuart Langridge, during a news conference about the Final Report of the Fynes Public Inquiry during a news conference, Tuesday, March 10, 2015 in Ottawa. The medals are (left to right) the Sacrifice medal, and for service in Afghanistan, Peacekeeping and Bosnia. ADRIAN WYLD / THE CANADIAN PRESS

It is not news that many soldiers have chosen to die rather than to struggle through the constant battle that is post-traumatic stress disorder. This may be horrifying, but it is not news. It is common knowledge that, in the last 40 years, more Vietnam vets have died by their own hand than ever died fighting that war.
This kind of tragedy happens to our policemen and first responders too. Last year, Cpl Ron Francis from the RCMP, was found dead of apparent suicide. Before he died, he reported to the National Post that he and others suffered because there was no proper program to address PTSD for the police, and no “proper information for their families.” He added, “People are dying, because there is no proper backup.”

As a psychologist who has worked with those suffering from PTSD in many settings, I think he is right.

Francis specifically referred to families and, for me, this goes to the heart of the matter. We seem to be focusing more and more on drug therapies and offering soldiers more superficial coping strategies, such as teaching them to try to suppress negative thoughts, while ignoring the most vital healing resource of all, maintaining emotional connection with those they love. Over the years, warrior after warrior has told me clearly, their partner is their lifeline, their bulwark against despair, their remaining source of joy and safety. After a few sessions, my client, Jamie, tells me that he and his wife can stand together against the dragons that come for him in every nightmare; he can now call for her and she knows how to calm him and hold him until the panic subsides. This is the soothing that our human brain is wired for. This is the best antidote we have to the helplessness of trauma.

We are not talking here of romantic sentimentality; we are talking science. We now know that the loss of connection with loved ones plays a key role in triggering and perpetuating almost all mental health issues. No matter how brave we are or how much training we have, human beings are just not designed to face dragons alone. Safe connection heals. After 9/11, a study by one of my colleagues found that some survivors who had been close to the towers were doing very well 18 months later, while some had some or all of the symptoms of PTSD. The difference lay in whether these survivors had at least one close trusted other to confide in, to take comfort in and to call when their nervous systems vibrated with the horror of that day. Being able to count on a few trusted others makes all the difference. It is clear that the very best predictor of personal resilience is ability to take one’s armour off and be comforted by a loved one. Simply educating partners and including them in the treatment plans of chronic anxious individuals has been shown to double the positive impact of treatment.

Many years ago the U.S. military attempted to recognize this reality by creating brief couple education programs for their soldiers returning from deployment. My colleagues and I were asked to design one such program and feedback from military families was extremely positive. But in the end the program was offered only occasionally. As one soldier told me, “The old adage is, ‘If the military thought you needed a wife, they would have offered you one.’ They just don’t see how important this connection is. Without her beside me, the ghosts would have eaten my soul.”

Just last year in Canada, a brave military wife, Jenifer Migneault, made news when she accused the Veterans Affairs Minister, Julian Fantino of “forgetting” military families. Recently, in the Globe and Mail, she pointed out that this minister offered service dogs and volunteers to aid in filling out forms to vets, but no support to the military families who suffer with their loved ones and who are their best resource in healing.
The other obvious and potent reason for supporting, educating and including partners in intervention is that PTSD symptoms, such as numbing and hypervigilance, are toxic for any relationship. Without support, a trauma survivor’s relationships often fall apart just when the survivor needs them the most. Emotional isolation is the most potent trigger for suicidal or aggressive behaviours.

 The most painful irony here is perhaps that over the last two decades, Canadian mental health professionals such as myself have outlined and tested clear protocols for working with couples dealing with traumatic stress. We know how to do this, but my experience is that our help is often turned down. It seems that enhancing the stability of our warrior’s closest relationships is not yet seen as a necessary part of post deployment support, or treatment for trauma. I have been told personally by military personnel, “The men do not need this.”

Ron Francis, Jenifer Migneault, and the hundreds of couples my colleagues and I have treated and run educational programs for over the years do not agree with them. PTSD is a many headed monster and to tackle it, we need all the resources we can muster. We need to not only, as Francis suggested, be better at “informing” partners about this illness, but also to actively help those who are wounded shape the secure family bonds that tame this dragon. We have the science and the expertise to do this – to help couples shape the support that only a loved one can give – shelter from the storm and a reason to fight on. We must now offer this support to those who serve our country and our communities.
Sue Johnson is a clinical psychologist, professor emeritus at the University of Ottawa, director of the Ottawa Couple and Family Institute, and director of the International Center for Excellence in Emotionally Focused Therapy.