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10 Things People with PTSD & Their Loved Ones Need from Church People & Ministry Leaders

Mon, Jul. 27, 2015 Posted: 01:44 PM


Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is rampant, plaguing millions in the U.S. alone, along with all their loved ones. The urgent need is rapidly rising, and needs to be addressed by churches and ministry leaders.

When my veteran husband and I first started seeing each other, he divulged, “I’ve got PTSD and I’m all screwed up.” Totally clueless, I devoured everything I could get my hands on. I wept for the horrors our trauma survivors have experienced that haunt them day and night. I also learned that it was NOT ME. And I could not fix it. Now years later after much counseling, prayer and support, I thank God for the privilege of loving my warrior and being loved by him. It IS possible to thrive in spite of the PTSD!

From my own life and the input of many others, I’d like to share 10 things that those with PTSD and their loved ones desperately need from those around them.

1. We need you to be informed enough about PTSD to be helpful.

One veteran pleads, “They need to know about PTSD and how it affects us so they can understand our actions in certain circumstances, like our fear of crowds, sudden movements, and loud noises.”

Posttraumatic Stress Disorder has been around for all of history. It can affect anyone (not just veterans) and it results from exposure to an experience that is horrific or life-threatening. The whole person gets locked into emergency mode (fight, flight or freeze survival!), and will stay locked in that emergency mode at some level for the rest of their lives. 24/7 they live as if the trauma or an impending crisis could reoccur at any moment. And it totally overwhelms their ability to cope.

PTSD deeply and profoundly impacts all those who love them and live with them. It is not a chosen situation, not an illness, not a temporary condition, nor is it 100% curable. People who struggle with it are not crazy, weak, failures, bad people, nor are they without help and hope. The good news is they can learn to thrive again!

2. We need you to admit that although you may not personally know what living with PTSD is like, you care and will support us.

Many trauma survivors are hyper-vigilant. 24/7 they are braced for attack. They can never rest. Never feel safe. Many are constantly armed. Because they must always be aware of what is around them and behind them, you will find these warriors in the corners of restaurants, and at the back of the church. If the back row is full, they may leave.

Some typical symptoms may include flashbacks, intrusive thoughts of the trauma, avoidance, numbing, putting up walls, withdrawing, hyper-vigilance, irritability, easily startled, memory blocks, sudden bursts of anger or other emotions, difficulty sleeping, nightmares, fear, depression, anxiety, substance abuse and other addictive behaviors, difficulty holding a job, relationship problems, and unfortunately sometimes even suicide. They are people who are reacting normally to an abnormal experience.

3. We need you to affirm us as valuable individuals, and show respect and honor; not to label us, be afraid of us, nor feel the need to “fix” us.

Part of this is knowing what NOT to say, such as: Aren’t you over it yet? It’s all in your head. Just be stronger. I have a total cure for you. At least you weren’t wounded. It’s all in the past. Suck it up.

And also knowing what is helpful, such as: acknowledging the depth and reality of their struggle; encouraging them; trying to imagine a day and night in their shoes; accepting that you will never fully understand; inviting them to explore resources together; respecting their need for space; offering to go with them to a local Vet Center, VA, doctor, or counselor; being supportive of the loved ones; and realizing that that with PTSD every day is a victory!

4. We need you to ask us what we need and how you can help.

Some may need a hug. Others may request that they never be touched. Some may need regular calls. Others may prefer lots of space. Younger families may need help with childcare during appointments. Older veterans may need someone to drive them to appointments. Or help around the house. Or just someone to go for coffee and listen.

5. We need you to listen, and hear us.

One veteran was severely triggered by the excessive volume of the church music. It was so loud it sent him right back into combat in the jungles of Vietnam. Repeatedly he and his wife asked them to consider lowering the volume, but they did not listen. They wanted to draw a younger crowd. They told him to wear earplugs. Eventually the family left and never went back.

Elsewhere, in desperation another couple went to their pastor to talk with him. Sadly, he never listened, but kept interrupting and offering Bible verses. There is a time to do that and a time to just listen.

6. When we are ready, we need you to provide/direct us to spiritual resources that address our deep needs.

Once they feel safe, know that you understand at least a little, that you care and that you are listening, then they will be much more receptive to spiritual input.

Many who have suffered trauma have lost their faith in God. That devastating spiritual disconnect needs to be fixed. One suicidal veteran grievously believed he was “beyond redemption” because of the tremendous guilt he felt over the horrific things he had to do in war. He desperately needs to understand God’s grace and forgiveness for all of us!

One dear woman who suffered childhood abuse, married a veteran with PTSD, and then lost a son to suicide, shared: “I think that trauma/grief is managed, not cured. And even as Christians, sometimes the permanent damage to our brains prevents a ‘cure’ no matter how willing the heart might be. I get so tired of the idea that if you believe in the Lord you should never struggle. A firm faith in the Lord is HUGE, and onlookers have no idea what our pain would look like without that faith.“

7. We need you to help provide/direct us to additional resources that you cannot personally provide.

Familiarize yourself with your local resources. Is there a VA nearby? Or a Vet center? Or other support facilities/organizations? What about resources for the family? Additionally, it would be wise to have some suicide prevention training or at least know where you can go for support (hotlines, etc.). See www.LoveOurVets.org for resources.

8. We need you to help create a welcoming church environment where veterans, military and PTSD survivors can feel at home.

Encourage church attenders to learn more about the basics of PTSD. This veteran’s wife speaks for many: “We need people to reach out to them and not be afraid. My husband isn't a mean or bad person… he's just experienced horrible things. We're trying to live as normally as the next family, but normal for us is different now.”

Consider starting a Military Ministry, or a PTSD Support Group, either for those with PTSD or the loved ones.

Also, many people with PTSD depend on their service dogs. Is your church set up to accommodate them?

9. We need you to pray for us.

FAITH and LOVE are especially powerful in the lives of those battling PTSD, and their loved ones. Lift them up in prayer and watch God work!

10. We need you to remember that ministry is 24/7…more than just on Sunday morning.

From a veteran pastor: “Church can be overwhelming. The noise, movement, hugging and handshaking can be difficult. Church is emotionally moving and can be triggering to those with PTSD as well as caregivers. They may be in desperate need. Those who cannot attend fall through the cracks.”

One lady in urgent need reached out to us. Her veteran son has PTSD, his wife has drug problems, and now she is raising his small children, all with severe challenges. Sadly, she said they are in a small town and the church people were not nice to them, so they never went.

If our churches cannot welcome those who are hurting, then what are we here for?

In this fallen world we all have tremendous needs and challenges, whether PTSD or something else. I find it amazing that God uses pain to bring people to Himself. Let’s be part of what He is doing!

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Welby O’Brien is crazy about her veteran husband, and together they find fulfillment as they face the relentless challenges of PTSD. With a Master’s degree in counseling, she has authored the books Formerly A Wife (divorce support) and Good–bye for Now (grief support) (Moody/WingSpread), as well as contributed to Chicken Soup for the Soul (Divorce and Recovery), and Shepherding Women in Pain (Moody). And most recently LOVE OUR VETS: Restoring Hope for Families of Veterans with PTSD (Deep River Books). Welby has been welcomed as a guest speaker across the country, and on radio and television. Welby initiated and continues to facilitate the spouse and family support network known as Love Our Vets – PTSD Family Support, LLC.

Welby O'Brien