Post-traumatic stress disorder is sadly common among veterans, and the problem is especially acute in the African American veteran population. Studies breaking down the incidence of PTSD by race and ethnicity are still rare among those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the Vietnam-era generation has been studied extensively, and this work has confirmed that African American men who served in Southeast Asia in the ’60s and ’70s have been extremely hard hit by trauma-related mental health disorders. Anecdotal evidence is extensive enough to conclude the situation hasn’t changed appreciably in our most recent wars, and even without detailed statistical information to back it up, it is clear that alarming numbers of younger African American veterans are also struggling with PTSD. The National Vietnam Veterans Readjustment study was a congressionally mandated research project that examined the personal and medical histories of Vietnam veterans in order to assess the level of disruption their service had caused in their lives. The U.S. Veterans Administration issued its final report in 1988, and it was here the truth about African Americans, the Vietnam War and PTSD were revealed for the first time. While African American men comprised just 13 percent of the armed forces during the Vietnam era, 28 percent of those who died in Southeast Asia were members of this group. This indirectly confirms the allegation that a disproportionate number of African Americans were sent to the front lines during this conflict, bringing them face-to-face with the most intense action and the gravest danger—and putting them at extra risk for PTSD. About 21 percent of African American veterans surveyed in the National Vietnam Veterans Readjustment study showed symptoms consistent with full-blown PTSD, a 50 percent higher rate than whites who served in the military during the same time period.
Why Are African American Veterans Suffering So Much?
Mental health diagnoses have significant real-world consequences, especially when conditions are left untreated. Dr. William Lawson, head of the psychiatric and behavioral sciences department at Howard University, asserts that African American veterans with PTSD have been badly underserved and undertreated by the mental health professions. According to Lawson, who has studied mental health issues in this population extensively, many African American veterans are reluctant to admit to or seek treatment for their PTSD symptoms because they do not trust the medical profession and do not feel they will receive fair or equal treatment from doctors or healthcare administrators. Much of this sentiment is based on actual negative experiences with healthcare professionals and institutions and cannot be dismissed as unrealistic or excessively cynical. In his research, Lawson has uncovered data suggesting African American veterans with PTSD are frequently misdiagnosed with schizophrenia, a much more disabling condition that requires more invasive treatment. The symptoms of PTSD and schizophrenia do overlap to some extent, but given the connection between combat service and PTSD, it is surprising to learn such mistakes would occur so often. The Veterans Administration system provides financial benefits and healthcare assistance for vets with military-related PTSD but does not offer such support to veterans with conditions like schizophrenia, which is presumed to be pre-existing and therefore not related to military service. Whether this gives VA medical professionals incentive to misdiagnose is open to debate, but the experiences of African American veterans do provide ammunition for suspicion. Another indication of African Americans’ mistreatment by the healthcare system was uncovered by a team of researchers that studied overall treatment patterns among the mentally ill. The researchers found that even after adjustments were made for other variables, African Americans were still twice as likely as whites to be hospitalized for the same type and degree of mental illness. Compounding the problem for African American veterans is the fact that in the military culture, it is still considered a sign of weakness to admit to mental health troubles. This attitude is not confined to any particular racial or ethnic group, but it does help to reinforce the unwillingness of many African American vets to ask for the help they desperately need.
Failed by the System
Those who’ve studied the PTSD epidemic among African American vets believe the psychological factors that prevent so many from seeking treatment must be addressed proactively and decisively. The goal would be to steer more of these men toward the places where trained professionals can help them learn to deal with their mental health issues. However, these experts also stress the importance of internal change that will address the inadequacies of the existing healthcare system and make them subject to reform. African American veterans struggling with psychological and emotional difficulties related to their service need treatment that is culturally sensitive, socially educated and tuned in to the barriers that prevented the suffering from coming forward earlier. At the same time, the stigma that associates mental illness with personal failure must be discussed openly and honestly in the African American community—in every community—so this harmful and outdated idea can be debunked and abandoned once and for all.