A Magazine for the George Mason University Community

Turning to the Family to Save the Soldier

March 15, 2011


By Jason Jacks

Keith Renshaw

The horrific nature of war does more than tear flesh, maim bodies, and take lives. It also often scars the mind, leaving scores of veterans locked in emotional battles that sometimes lead to shattered relationships back home and, even worse, suicide.

To help counter this growing problem, a trio of Mason researchers, led by assistant psychology professor Keith Renshaw, is taking a unique approach by examining the role veterans’ family members play in helping sufferers or potential sufferers of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) adjust to life off the front lines.

“One of the strongest protective factors against developing PTSD after a trauma,” Renshaw wrote in the team’s grant abstract to military officials, “is having support from friends and families.”

Mona Pearl

The three researchers—Renshaw; Mona Pearl, associate dean for academic research in the College of Health and Human Services; and Patrick McKnight, another assistant professor in the Department of Psychology—were awarded a $460,000 grant from the Department of Defense. With the grant, the research team will launch a three-year study in January 2011 that will include focus groups and extensive interviews with family members and the combat veterans with whom they live.

“What struck me is how few people are looking at this,” Renshaw says. “There is very little [research] on the spouses and parents.”

Approximately 18 percent of American service members who spend time in the war zones of Iraq and Afghanistan show at least some signs of PTSD, such as anxiety, nightmares, and emotional withdrawal. Renshaw gave an extreme example of some severe PTSD sufferers who have awoken in the dead of night to find themselves strangling their spouse—likely the result of a nightmare of their experiences in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Patrick McKnight

While few of these cases result in suicide, the number of service members who have taken their own life has been on the rise of late. According to the recently founded National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention, which counts the Department of Defense as one of its partners, the military in 2009 had a suicide rate of 12.5 victims out of every 100,000 service members, slightly up from the 2008 rate. The national average was 11.1 in 2009. Between 2005 and 2009, more than 1,100 service members took their own life. That’s one suicide every 36 hours.

Renshaw says the point of the study is to try to understand veterans’ “interpersonal environments” and see how family members react to the veterans’ PTSD symptoms. The goal is to someday use the results to develop better prevention programs for PTSD and, it is hoped, reduce suicides in the military.

During the first year of the study, researchers will hold seven focus groups, from which they will collect family members’ thoughts and experiences in dealing with a veteran who either has PTSD or is at risk of developing it. Three groups will be composed of wives of service members, and one group composed of husbands. The final three groups will comprise parents of single veterans, a segment, according to Renshaw, that has seen very little research.

“There is growing literature on spouses and the problems they face, but there is not a lot on single soldiers,” he says. “So one of the things we want to do is tap into that.”

During years two and three of the study, researchers will then conduct surveys of and interviews with both family members and the veterans themselves. The goal is to track their thoughts and experiences with PTSD over time to learn why some families function better than others in dealing with the condition and how the family environment might be able to help protect against the worsening of PTSD and reduce the chances of suicide.

“So what we want to do with this project is identify some of the mechanisms spouses and parents are using to handle [PTSD] better than others,” he says.

Before arriving at Mason in fall 2009, Renshaw worked extensively with obsessive compulsive disorder and panic disorder sufferers to see how their conditions affected their family lives. While an assistant professor at the University of Utah, he then turned his focus in 2006 to studying how family members of the Utah National Guard and reservists dealt with living with a PTSD sufferer.

As Renshaw points out, PTSD can have devastating effects within the National Guard and reserves, in particular, because these soldiers and their families don’t have the same access to mental health support afforded active-duty families who live on a military installation. He hopes to study this group more extensively in the future.

With the present study, though, the team will likely work mostly with active-duty personnel and their families. Renshaw hopes the study will give him an understanding of the factors that contribute “to the stress and resilience” found in relatives of PTSD sufferers and “how those factors play out over time.”

By the two-year mark, Renshaw says he hopes to have enough data to go back to the military with another study idea that would more closely examine techniques for reducing the effects of PTSD.

“My hope is that we will hit on some important variables that we could actually develop an intervention around,” he says.


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