As U.S. service members return home after years of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, Lt. Cmdr. Pamela Herbig-Wall, RN, CNS, PMHNP-BC, believes many of them will suffer from a silent threat: post-traumatic stress disorder.
While there are a range of treatment options available — from healthcare providers and mental health professionals to clergy, counselors and more — a key to successful PTSD treatment usually begins with detecting the disorder and then steering the veteran to the proper care, Herbig-Wall said.
An active duty servicewoman in the U.S. Navy since 1996, Herbig-Wall is the former director of the adult mental health nurse practitioner program at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Md., and is pursuing a PhD at the University of Pennsylvania with funding from the Jonas Veterans Healthcare Program. She is a staff psychiatric nurse practitioner stationed at Camp Lejeune, N.C.
As operations in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down, Herbig-Wall said she believes nurses will be essential in fighting the battle against PTSD and other mental health concerns suffered by veterans.
“The No. 1 priority is to make sure our nurses are educated,” Herbig-Wall said. “They need to recognize the symptoms when they see it, to know what it looks like. But, No. 2, we need to help the individual recognize this, as well. Those in the military are not among the kinds of people in the world who are going to jump up and say, ‘I need help.”
Herbig-Walls commitment to helping those suffering from PTSD and traumatic brain injury began early in her career, as she served in Veterans Affairs hospitals. There, she worked with a range of veterans, including those who served in Korea and Vietnam and who still dealt with PTSD and related issues.
In coming years, more than 1 million American veterans will return from combat zones, and many of these service members will suffer from PTSD and other mental health issues.
That is why Herbig-Wall said she is a strong proponent of the Joining Forces Initiative. Created under the offices of first lady Michelle Obama and second lady Jill Biden, the initiative is designed to promote services for returning veterans.
As part of that effort, the White House has partnered with nursing organizations and nursing schools to educate nurses about PTSD and other mental health issues returning veterans face.
The White House reports that about 1 in 6 returning veterans suffers from PTSD and traumatic brain injury. But regardless of the number, Herbig-Wall noted that many returning veterans at some point will seek care in either a VA or civilian hospital. And there, nurses will be among the first healthcare professionals to provide care.
She said the best treatment of PTSD often is individualized and holistic.
“They need to buy in, to be interested in their own treatment,” Herbig-Wall said.
And few healthcare professionals are more appropriately positioned to help patients “buy in” than nurses.
“They can spot things quickly, because they are in contact with patients all the time,” Herbig-Wall said.
Jane Kirschling, RN, DNS, FAAN, president of the American Association of Colleges of Nursing, which is based in Washington, D.C., said her association, including hundreds of nursing schools, is partnering with the VA through Joining Forces to create resources to help nurses nationwide recognize and help treat PTSD.
She said nursing schools for many years have provided instruction on PTSD. But she acknowledged there is still more nurses can learn about the disorder.
“This campaign has a tremendous ability for us to jump-start the work,” Kirschling said. “This will get our nurses aware of the disorder, and asking the right questions, and get [veterans] directed to the right programs and resources.”
Jonathan Bilyk is a freelance writer.