Overall, only 9% of veterans surveyed say they have fully recovered from PTSD and no longer have symptoms. Not surprisingly, 77% of survey respondents said they are interested in trying an alternative form of PTSD treatment that does not involve additional medications or long-term therapy. Significant numbers of respondents also reported facing barriers to accessing healthcare services, including transportation, and finding a nearby provider with experience treating PTSD. These and other physical barriers may explain why a large number of survey takers have used telemedicine to access therapy remotely.
The online survey of 200 U.S. military veterans who have been diagnosed with PTSD was conducted by Freespira in recognition of Veterans Day. The results mirror peer-reviewed studies finding that up to two-thirds of veterans and military personnel who undergo standard psychotherapeutic treatment for PTSD still retain their diagnosis after treatment.i Other studies indicate that fewer than half of patients receiving standard antidepressants for PTSD achieve full remission.ii
Importantly, the survey turned up a disconnect between respondents’ generally high ratings for treatment effectiveness and their overall high prevalence of recurring symptoms. While 66% of respondents taking medications and 65% of those who have undergone psychotherapy rated those treatments as either “very effective” or “effective,” a majority of survey respondents (58%) also reported that they either “frequently” or “occasionally” still struggle with symptoms of PTSD.
That conflicting finding is even more extreme among those who gave medication and therapy the highest marks. Nearly three-quarters of those who said medication was “very effective,” and 67% of those who said the same about therapy, also said they still struggle with PTSD symptoms. Only 10% of the medication group and 7% of the therapy group said they feel fully recovered from the condition. Moreover, those percentages remain relatively constant regardless of whether respondents were new to treatment or have been in treatment for more than 10 years.
“This survey confirms that medication and psychotherapy are effective for some but not all veterans who suffer from PTSD,” said Robert Cuyler, Ph.D., Chief Clinical Officer of Freespira. “The disconnect between veterans’ perceptions of the effectiveness of their treatment and their continuing struggles with symptoms of the condition may reflect low expectations that full recovery from their trauma is possible with common therapy options. Given how disruptive the condition can be, and the issues with access to care, there’s a clear need for alternative treatments, particularly treatments that offer hope for full recovery rather than merely managing symptoms.”
Large numbers of veterans suffer from PTSD
PTSD is a debilitating disorder that occurs in many people who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event such as a natural disaster, war, combat, or sexual assault. People with PTSD have long-lasting, intense, disturbing thoughts and feelings related to their experience. Common symptoms include recurring nightmares, hypervigilance, depression, emotional numbing, loneliness, and difficulty controlling anger and anxiety.
In a 2017 study involving 5,826 United States veterans, 12.9% were diagnosed with PTSD.iii For veterans who served in Afghanistan or Iraq, the US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) estimates the rate of PTSD is between 11% and 20%.iv That is a strikingly high rate compared to the incidence of PTSD among the general population: Just 6.8% of the U.S. population will experience PTSD at any point in their lives.v
Sleep problems, panic attacks and anxiety are the most troubling symptoms
When asked to identify all the common PTSD symptoms that they wish their treatment could help resolve, survey takers selected:
- sleeping consistently through the night to wake refreshed – 57%
- minimizing panic attacks and general anxiety – 47%
- being more fully present with family and friends – 40%
- staying calm in difficult life situations – 39%
- controlling anger or frustration – 37%
A slim majority of respondents (51%) also said they have felt stigmatized by others who learned they have PTSD. Another 20% said they are concerned that the condition may cause others to judge them harshly but are unsure whether that has happened.
Veterans Open to Alternative Treatment Options
Perhaps not surprisingly, considering the high rate of recurring symptoms among survey takers, 77% said they would be “very interested” or “interested” in trying an alternative treatment for PTSD that does not involve additional medications or long-term therapy. Another 8% said they might be interested in such a treatment, while only 9% said they were not interested (an additional 9% indicated they don’t need a treatment, mirroring the number who said they are completely recovered).
The VA, which has been a leader in behavioral health care for many years, has begun to explore some alternative treatments that have shown promise to help veterans. The Freespira solution for PTSD was the subject of a recent peer-reviewed study, conducted at the Palo Alto (Calif.) Veterans Affairs Health Care System, finding that 88% of subjects experienced a clinically significant drop in the standard clinical measure of PTSD severity (CAPS-5 score) two months after treatment. Moreover, 30% of subjects experienced remission from PTSD following treatment, and this increased to 48% at two months and 50% at six months post-treatment. Associated measures of mental and physical health also improved and persisted at the six-month mark.[vi]
Access Issues Limit Treatment Options but Telemedicine Helps
The survey asked respondents to list relevant barriers to treatment for PTSD that they have experienced, by selecting from a list of the most common barriers across healthcare in general. The most-selected options were:
- Difficulty accessing transportation to care – 38%
- Difficulty finding a provider located close nearby – 34%
- Difficulty getting time off work to go to the doctor/therapist – 34%
- Difficulty finding a provider with PTSD expertise – 33%
- Difficultly getting timely appointments for care – 29%
- Difficultly leaving home for healthcare appointments – 27%
These barriers to accessing care were at least partially offset for many survey takers by their use of telemedicine. Fully 64% report having accessed therapy via telemedicine on their phone or computer. Thirty-three percent reported using their phone for the virtual therapy sessions; 31% used their computer.